In The Evening Of The Day
Long ago and far away on the edge of the city where the orchards began, his mother took his hand to walk him down the path to the little weatherboard hall with its corrugated iron porch. Clear and warm that first day of school. A row of high silver gums marked the sky above the hall and the church.
Someone was proud but it wasn’t him. He was scared. Hair combed, parted on the right, shoes tied by poppa with a double bow. Mummy checked that his lunch, wrapped in brown paper, was safely tucked into the too big bag, told him to be a good boy, waved gaily to neighbours and disappeared.
He stood just inside the door, holding his own hand, balancing one foot on top of the other, scuffing the newly polished leather, waiting until a big lady pushed him aside.
So he stood waiting, with other children some of whom he knew, until a nun took them all to the far end of the room and told them to sit on the floor and not to fidget.
And so they sat in the sun streaming through the big windows until another nun came and told them to stop fidgeting. She was their teacher, Mother Mary Saint John. And she had big teeth.
Later at play time she sent him with a big girl to get the milk. Two wire crates sat on a little platform at the school gate in full summer sun. The big girl felt the little bottles and announced how warm they were. He noticed that some had bubbled and burst their silver caps to dribble through the crate into the dust.
The big girl said not to touch those ones because the milk already smelled and you’d get stinky finger. She may have been in Grade 2. She’d done this before.
They carried the crates one at a time to the porch where the big lady, somebody else’s mother, not his slender beautiful mummy, punctured all the caps even those already burst and poked paper straws into them. She lined them all up on trestle table and he was sent back to class which was just at the end of the hall.
In those days all the classes sat on the floor in the same big hall. But at lunch time Mother Mary Saint John took them to the shelter shed and showed them where to sit and where the water troughs were and the rubbish bins, and the boys and girls toilets, and instructed them to use the right one and not to play in there.
Halfway through his vegemite sandwich she told him to go and help fetch the milk from the little porch. He'd forgotten which bottles had bubbled and gone stinky but it didn't really matter because it tasted warm and comforting and so the first day passed. Slowly.
Then he waited for his mother and old poppa. On a hill below the church beside a paddock of waving dry grass, looking out over orchards disappearing daily beneath the frames of new houses stretching to the distant city which he couldn't quite see. But knew to be there because that's the direction poppa came from every week in his big old car.
But children don't look into far distances, neither for the future nor the past. All he could see was his mother smiling at the gate, with the baby in the pram, come to take him home.
The sheltershed seemed bigger than the school itself. Big and cool with a high sloping roof and only one corrugated wall. The ends were enclosed with timber lattice that let through dappled light. Stainless steel drinking troughs ran along the back with many taps dripping all day. Water always seemed to be running in there.
Apart from lunchtimes with the whole class he didn’t go inside. Not by himself. Big boys seemed to play noisy games in there all the time and although not dark the sheltershed contained some unknown air of strangeness.
But one hot midday he did leave his friends playing on the grassy hill and went to the taps, approaching the sound of running water with a casual air but on a curious quest. Others had mentioned that only some of the taps worked and you had to know which ones to go for.
He gingerly tried the handle near the end, pressing carefully. A jet of water shot up, too high. Too hard and fast. So he kept trying along the row, some jammed with bark and twigs, until he found one that seemed just right.
He bent to drink that soft cool water and heard a rush behind him. Felt a sudden push. Fell onto the tap and banged his teeth. Cut his lip. The water below him slowly turned red. He looked up at a group of bigger boys laughing and running away looking back in fun. He never knew their names.
Freddie and his brother walked to school from across the creek through the bush beyond the orchards. No shoes and no school bags and they never brought a proper lunch.
But they did bring other things. One day a goanna in a gunny sack, wriggling. Another time witchetties. Huge rain moths, which only ever came out of the dry earth the day before a storm. The big boys never bullied them, not even at the shelter shed taps, but some of the kids especially the smart girls, the ones who could already read, called them names. If they ever did get picked on, rarely, they fought to win and bit and kicked and scratched at wide eyes.
Friendship like love and fear works according to its own mysterious laws. Very soon he was sharing his vegemite sandwich with Freddie. It occurred to him to tell his mother he was very hungry at school so she started to make him two sandwiches and that worked better except that little brother George wanted some too.
They took him into the long grass near the creek and showed him how to collect the bindi-eyes to slip down the collar of the mean boys or down the dresses of the girls.
He sat beside Freddie with the School Reader, Book One, and whispered the words to him. One word on each page facing a black and white picture. Apple bee cat and dog.
Freddie and his brother had no interest in learning school stuff but they knew how to catch yabbies, where to find taddies, weren’t scared of snakes even in their bare feet and once told him boldly they stayed up at night until they fell asleep.
Also Freddie could draw pictures that looked real, like doors that opened into a wall, or horses that galloped, or cowboys who shot guns with both hands.
Mother Mary Saint John seemed to approve of this alliance with the barefoot Freddie. She let them sit at the same wooden desk while half the class sat on the floor. There weren’t enough desks in those days but the following year in Grade One they all got a desk with a lift up top in which he kept his lunch and Freddie kept all sorts of coloured stones and feathers and a home-made knife.
The nuns confiscated the knife, which meant they took it and gave Freddie a cuff on the ear.
Mother Mary Saint John didn’t hit the children much, only the boys and only if they wouldn’t listen, not like Mother Mary Saint George.
Sometime in Grade One he asked why they all had names starting with Mary followed by a boys name but never got an answer. Mother Mary Saint John played the piano in the church and sometimes, instead of afternoon prayers, she sang to them in beautiful words they couldn’t understand.
Then one day in the endless progression of time without end, getting used to being put here, told to do this, sent there, praised unexpectedly and condemned without warning, he found he could read The School Reader Number Three from beginning to end. Mother Mary Saint Juliancame in with a thick blue book and and told him to stand at his desk and read it aloud. It was about men and woe-men.
A girl in the front stuck up her hand and said it was wimm-en so he read that page again word perfect. Mother Mary Saint John beamed with glistening teeth.
They sent him that very day into Grade Two. Without Freddie.
The parents built a new brick room next to the old wooden one and more children came. Fathers mowed the deep paddock at a working bee, although the bindi eyes still grew in the short grass.
After the summer holidays they returned to find that most of the grassy dusty playground had turned to shiny clean hot asphalt that skinned your knees.
Strange men called inspectors visited from time to time, throwing terror into the nuns. He knew this because they didn’t smile at all and growled at children who usually had been perfect. The inspectors never spoke but watched everyone and everything.
The rolly Parish Priest came and told them about Jesus and Temptation and made them read the Catechism aloud. He practised the questions at home — where is God? God is everywhere. In the church in his tabernacle. In the street and the sky. Even in the grass short or long with the bindies.
The next day he knew the little red catechism by heart, just as word perfect as the thick blue School Reader.
Another working bee on another Saturday, at which he noticed that the nuns never attended, just the parents, well mainly the fathers. His mother never attended. One day, a school day, Sister Mary Saint George asked why his mother never came to Mass … thinking quickly he answered that she had to look after the baby. But other mothers took their babies to Mass in prams she said and he had no quickness left to answer that.
On this Saturday, though, there were some mums cooking sausages and talking and kids running everywhere while the dads installed some swings and a slide and a see-saw. Peter Philips broke his jaw on the see-saw when a big kid jumped on the other end. He missed the rest of that year and the next year had to start Grade Three again.
Peter’s brother and Terry Hayes along with the Connell boys were later paraded on the asphalt and strapped for playing in the boys toilets. In fact they’d been standing on the seats and urinating over the corrugated iron divider onto the girls’ side and the girls had dobbed.
This inexplicable crime went beyond everyone’s understanding and the four boys were strapped on both their hands and their backsides and sent home with notes.
They didn’t care, those boys nor many others like them. They were already angry at things yet to come, at failure and hurts yet to be felt, seeing somehow the dead ends ahead of them.
Freddie no longer came to school so now he walked home on the footpath with Catherine, no more cutting through the creek. He enjoyed her presence and the funny things she said but then he’d ignore her if other boys were around.
There were no no bindies left in the main playground, just remnants down in the small paddock near the wire fence, because the fathers had dug up most of the grass and paved the hillside in asphalt and gravel.
The Chosen One
Larry Adler played the mouth organ from the radio above the blackboard. Sometimes Larry whistled. Greensleeves. This was called a music lesson.
An angel watched over the class from a big picture on the other wall, guarding two curly headed children crossing a rickety bridge in the woods. Angels always watched over good children as they set out on their perilous journeys across dangerous torrents and into unknown distances.
A big girl came to take him to the church where they were practising for the Queen of the May. Oh Mary we crown you with flowers today, Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May. Mother Mary Saint John played the church organ beautifully while the senior choir sang off key and white lilies swayed imperceptibly around the altar.
One of the Mother Mary Saints stood him next to a big girl and told him when to pass the cushion to her. On the feast day the cushion would hold a crown of flowers they said. After rehearsals they gave him a white satin suit to take home in a big cardboard box with a note for his mother. He had been chosen but he knew not why. Catherine walked proudly beside him and for once he took the old route home. Down near the creek he stopped to untie the box and … a footstep. A crackling behind them. Here cometh Freddie rising out of the creekbed like an ancient bunyip.
What’s in the box? Did ya get it at school?
And so he took it out to show Freddie who had been his friend. Who wanted to try it on. Catherine said no but he ignored her, Freddie was here.
And then she walked away, pausing with arms crossed and lips pursed, giving up on the boys who would be boys.
The white satin suit was soon smeared with mud and so, minding Freddie’s advice, he didn’t take it home to mum, knowing she’d be Mother not mummy. He hid it in the scrub near the main road.
That night on his knees beside the bed, he pleaded with baby Jesus and begged Our Lady for help. He knew everything would be all right because they watched over children like him.
But in the light of the next day he realised he couldn’t take the suit back to school looking like that. So he lingered at the foot of the paddock until the children had all gone in then crept up to the shelter shed and tried to wash the mud off at the concrete drinking trough.
A big girl he didn’t know, from Grade Six probably, saw him at the taps. He left the suit under the running water and walked nonchalantly towards the church. At the porch, panelled in dark timber, he heard the organ and peeking around the door he saw Mother Mary Saint John down at the far corner playing with rapture and holy beauty. He took his shoes and socks off and crept like a spy into the back row. Near the confessional.
They were calling his name outside. Mary and Joseph watched him from the sides of the altar but he avoided their gaze. The little red lamp flickered and burned without going out, which meant that God was there, at home, present in the tabernacle. But he didn’t want talk to God right now,he’d rather talk with his little son, the Jesus Child. He would understand because he was just a boy too.
Even the Guardian Angel, who’s name he did not know, might understand, if he was still here just over his shoulder.
In the gathering atmosphere of guilt and fear, beneath a painting of the Sacred Heart, he started to sob and dropped his shoes.
The friendly bulk of Mother Mary Saint John turned in slow motion to smile at him. Her white collar and black veil surely hid big tumbling dark curls, like his mother’s. She gazed at him and he looked back. She spoke, he panicked, stood up and ran. In his bare feet and clutching his school socks.
She called his name.
He ran from the church where God was at home, without his Guardian Angel, across the asphalt and into the grassy paddock, or what was left of it, big girls running after him, chasing and calling his name.
His heart pounded as never before, not a Sacred Heart but his own heart, the only one he had. As he ran as fast as his twisted legs would carry him, barefoot through the bindi eyes, those sharp seeds and tiny thorns in the cropped yellow grass, he didn’t think about being the chosen one but just, just, just what he would tell his mother when he crossed the creek and arrived home in the middle of he day covered in mud. . .
IMAGE: In days of white satin, by Tigerulze on 500px