A Box of Spoons.

There is innocence in childhood that has the capacity to reduce a complex situation to the simplest of solutions. It has it’s own shining beauty in that it need not be corrected, nor adjudicated upon…just to be sure that such innocence will be perhaps, irretrievably lost once past the “coming of age”. But then, surely, each age has its’ attractions..even old age can offer a “safe harbour” for memories of the child we all once were.

 

At  my mother’s passing last year, I came into possession of all her archived household accounts and diaries…THEY were meticulously kept, from 1962 – 2014…right down to the last cent. Her correspondence, however was not so conscientiously maintained.. they were bundled or loose, in no discernable order of from any particular author…and all in a big box along with pamphlets and postcards. So it was no surprise to me when I came across one envelope that had written in one corner in her perfect script ; “ Keepsakes”.

 

Upon examination of the contents, among snippets from Aunt Lou of  Sth. Africa, or some distant relatives (on my father’s side) in America, there was a small cut square of wrapping paper..a faded yellow in colour with the print of two bells tied with a flourished ribbon and the script ; “Your wedding Bells” half circled above them.

 

This piece of paper ‘rang some bells’, if you’ll excuse the pun..and, begging your indulgence,I’ll tell you the story. How do I know the story so well? you’ll ask after it has been told…You see, like all those childish adventures and miss-adventures that come to the attention of  parents, they are told and re-told and repeated with some embarrassed amusement, right into our adult lives at every Christmas or family gathering…but then, one has to fill in the subtle details from memory of one’s own actions in the “ adventure” !

 

Of course, I have changed the names and domestic situation to “protect the innocent”..

 

It went like this :

 

A Box of Spoons.

 

It’s a curious cycle that has parents giving their offspring Christian names that would elevate them, if only in nomenclature, above their poverty-enriched status. So was the only child of Ruth Hogben given the name “Alistair” at birth with a surety of decision that stopped short any debate on other possible names for her child. “He is to be named Alistair” she spoke wearily after the birth, then lay silently to feed the child. Ruth Hogben was a single parent in a “Trust” house on the fringe of the southern suburbs of Adelaide. How and why she was without a male companion shall remain a mystery,… that is not our story.

 

“Damn poverty!” she would grumble to no-one in particular, “Oh to have a little extra money…even to buy some decent cutlery rather than this mish-mash of rubbish!” and she cast a plain steel knife into the dishwater.

 

Alistair heard this complaint many times as he grew up to his six years of age, so it formed an impression on his gentle child-mind that associated knives and forks and spoons with a degree of wealth. When his mother went shopping at  “Tommy Johnson’s  4 Square” grocery store, he would wander out the front of the market to gaze into the plate glass window of the jeweler next door. But not at the expensive, glittering baubles of diamonds and emerald rings and bracelets, nor at the expensive timepieces. No, he stared hungrily with sweaty hands flat pressed against the glass at a set of glowing silver cutlery all embossed on their handles with delicate textures that mesmerised the tender-mind of the boy. And the fact that they were embedded in a rich, red plush of crushed velvet that itself seemed to shimmer was an added bonus. Oh how he would love to be able to make a gift of that set to his mother! If he stood there too long staring, a frowning face would inevitably appear above the cutlery set and a hand would make shoo!, shoo! away motions that would send Alistair backing slowly away over to the store door to wait for his mother.

 

There were two major events that affected Alistair’s life, both to the frustration of his mother, one was his susceptibility to asthmatic or bronchitis attacks, which with the croup in his lungs and the fits of coughing would keep him home from school for days at a time. It had even put him in hospital overnight a couple of times so that now, when he had an attack, a district nurse dropped in to check on him. The other event, one that brought rapture to Alistair’s heart was the opening, in a nearby gully of a mega council rubbish dump. Alistair became, to his mothers concern an inveterate “tip-fly”. He would descend onto that refuse heap every spare moment that the council men weren’t there (for it was “forbidden to scavenge”) to pluck little treasures from that miasma of debris. He would come home with a box full of trinkets and toys and, of course, always a little “something for Mum!”…And!…and, despite her distaste for the subject, a certain curiosity would compel her to look into his “treasure chest” of swag.

“What have you got this time?” she’d ask as her eyes scanned the collection of knick-knacks. And Alistair would rummage expertly amongst them hummingly to produce a little treasure for her…for her he found it, a piece of colourful patterned china? a bauble of a cut glass vase perhaps? a book of verse… (she loved verse, he knew). And his mother would smooth his hair with her hand and plant a kiss on the top of his head in thank you and place the trinket or whatever up on the “special shelf”.

 

Ally would smile happily, but always at the back of his mind was that lingering awareness of his mother’s concern for what she called ; “their poverty” and that elusive set of cutlery, one day he would bring her a set of cutlery, he was sure he would, for in his child mind, there was nothing to distinguish this throw-away society from all that in the shops on the high-street. The measure of wealth was to him nothing more than the collection of material things..of trinkets ..of glitter and shine.

 

Come one winters’ day when the rain rattled on the glass of the window next to Alistair’s bed fit to drive even the hardiest birds to cover, Alistair gazed up from the picture book that was to amuse him as he lay resting from the latest attack of croup. He coughed a hacking , phlegmy cough that bought his mother in from the kitchen.

 

“Ah, dear, dear,” she fussed with the crumpled bed clothes and placed a warm moist hand on his forehead. “How’s my little chap then?” she cooed automatically. Alistair shrugged. “I’ve got the nurse coming today to look at you.” she consoled, “you just lie down and rest till she comes” and with one last smoothing down of the blankets she left the room.

 

Rest?  Rest? tell a six year old boy to lay and rest when, if not for the blasted coughing, he could be out in the wild…rest!! From out of  his window Alistair could at any time see down across the open sweep of paddocks to the gully that was the dump. Hardy scavenging seagulls would on most days circle like vultures then settle on the heaps of domestic garbage to feed. The site drew Alistair’s attention like iron to a magnet.

 

“It doesn’t look like the men are working now it’s raining,” he thought, “I might be able to sneak down for a look.”

 

This logic resolved his boredom and he quietly slipped out of bed and dressed for adventure. He opened his window carefully and climbed through into a bush of pelargoniums, the boy was free! His many trips to that “el dorado” had worn a track through the grass and around the sparse, wild-olive trees that dotted the paddocks. As he got closer to the tip, each olive tree had a clear patch around its base furtherest away from the cyclone-wire fence of the tip. Here he’d spy out the ground. The way was clear, the men were not working with the steady rain, they would be in the shed. Raindrops dripped from the dark leaves of the olive tree down Alistairs’ back, he shivered in reaction, but he didn’t really notice the wet; he had other distractions! He crept to the fence and along to the large corrugated iron shed that housed the bulldozer. There were a lot of old nail holes in the sheeting, to one of these Alistair put his eye as he had done on many occasion. Two men sat at an old table in the shed, they were playing cards. Alistair listened:

 

“Where’d you get these cards from?” one man asked mockingly, there was a moments silence.

“Found ’em t’ other day,” the other grumbled while in deep concentration on his cards. After a few cards were thrown down and others picked up, one threw his cards triumphantly on the table.

“Full house” he boastfully cried, “Kings high!” and he smiled. The other frowned quizzically then nodded. ‘

“Not bad” he said “I’ve only got five aces!”

“What!!” the first man exclaimed in disbelief.

 

Alistair left them at this point to argue the toss and seeing that they were involved in other duties, he made for his goal through the steady rain. He had gathered a few little ‘lovelies’ in his swag when he came across a jumble of wrapping papers and discarded ribbons amid confetti and used papers plates. The whole lot was next to a pile of rancid domestic waste. He poked about amongst the wedding debris (for that is what it was) with his seasoned eyes searching for booty. Then, all at once, amongst the scrap paper wrapping, he plucked out a small box, a card-board box about six inches square and one inch thick, it had a buffed crimson lid. He shook it, it rattled dully, he pondered on its’ contents and tried to guess, he played this game often, coins? buttons? No, too solid, nails? No too few! give up…carefully he eased the crimson lid off and gazed into the container.

 

Gosh! his eyes glowed with delight. He quickly closed the lid and slipped the box under his shirt less it become more rain speckled in his box of loot. His box! No, mustn’t  forget that and he picked it up, he’d got enough now, yes! Oh how wonderful! he turned to sneak back home, gloriously happy, wait; paper! wrapping paper everywhere!, he snatched up a piece that had “Your Wedding Bells” scripted over it, along with a length of white ribbon and he ran over to his spot at the fence which he crawled under to make for home,…home, there past the shed with the huge silent bulldozer smelling of dust and diesel and the two men laughing inside, home, past the dark olive trees and across the grassy paddock home, home, and how he ran, the grey clouds tumbled and the rain streaked in silvered incline toward his house…home!

 

The district nurse had arrived, Ruth showed her in and led her down to Alistair’s room. He wasn’t there!…and his window was ajar!

 

“Oh lord! where can he be?” Ruth exclaimed, but she had a pretty good idea. “Boys, they’re the hardest things in the world to keep in one place!” and she moved to gaze out the window. She couldn’t see him, but she knew he wouldn’t be long.

 

“He…he must have gone to look at something,” she explained weakly, “I’m sure he’ll be back in a minute…would you like a cup of tea while you wait?” The nurse looked at her watch and remarked that yes it was near lunch time anyway. and yes a cuppa would be nice..ta! so they both adjourned to the kitchen.

 

Alistair crept up to his window and climbed through…he coughed harshly…his mother heard and excusing herself went to investigate. She found him standing at his dresser wrapping a package, drops of water fell onto the rug under his shoes.

 

“Ally…Ally…where have you been? why, you’re soaked !…and…and your shoes, they’re filthy!” Alistair gave scant attention to his mother’s angry remarks, but thrust out a small, hastily wrapped package toward her. Ruth was taken aback by the tactic, she gazed dumbly down at the package that had “Your Wedding Bells” emblazoned on the wrapper.

 

“It’s for you Mum,” Alistair quietly but eagerly offered. He stood there soaked to the skin with the length of white ribbon he had no time to use, dangling loosely in his hand.

“It’s…it’s a…” but no! he wouldn’t tell her what it was, though one look at his wide-eyed expression and you could see he was dying to tell, he bit his bottom lip to stop himself and handed his mother the package, then clasped his hands together eagerly.

 

As Ruth took the clumsily wrapped package, the paper unfolded itself like petals of a flower to reveal a small box about six inches square and one inch thick, its’ lid was a crimson wash, speckled with rain-drops that raised welts on the smooth surface. She gazed wonderingly down at the box.

 

“Open it Mum, it’s for you…I found it for you.” Ruth gently praised open the lid and her mouth formed a little “o” with an accompanied sigh. Alistair crowded next to her and peeked into the box also. There, embedded in a plush of rich, red crushed velvet lay six bright, shiny silver tea-spoons, all embossed on their stems with delicate textured patterns that mesmerized Mother and son, a soft glow from the single filament light in the ceiling reflected spangles up into their eyes.

“It’s a box of spoons Mum.” Alistair whispered, “a box of spoons for you to have so now we won’t be so poor.” he said keenly.

 

Ruth looked to her son standing there all a tremble and took him into her arms. She smoothed and kissed the top of his head and murmured more to herself than to him.

 

“I never knew how rich we were.” The nurse called down the corridor, Ruth quickly stashed the spoons. They put Alistair back into bed and the nurse attended to his needs. He was ordered to stay put in his bed. Alistair snuggled down into the depths of his blankets and smiled contentedly at the thought of his days’ glory. He listened to the hum of conversation between his mother and the nurse in the kitchen, the chiming of the spoons against the side of the tea-cups as they stirred their brew rang an angelus in his heart.

 

“Oh, what lovely spoons” the nurse cooed syrupy, “where did you get them?”

 

“Oh these?” Ruth replied nonchalantly, “why, they were a…a gift, from someone… someone very special to me.” Alistair pulled his knees up to his chest, he coughed several times. His mother listened to the nurses chatter and cocked one ear to listen to her child’s coughing she nodded big-eyed at something the nurse had said, but at the same time sighed comfortably, for those coughs had a particular sound, the croup was easing, Alistair was on the mend.

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Health Practitioners and Other Medicines

 

There ought to be a rider attached to that response on the “happiest day of your life”, with the assurance of ;”I will……….provided!(see section 31-a…clause 19)”….I say that because when I first entered into that ‘contract’, I went from a bachelor whose only adult affliction was a terminal case of “lateral spine” with the attitude that most physical complaints could be cured with a good book and a good lie down to a co-habiting consumer of health foods, fads and fantasies!

But, like any dutiful spouse, I partnered this new opinion of the infallibility of “wholistic medicine” with all the best intentions, no-one has ever attacked a nice, healthy bowl of tofu and brown rice with as much gusto as myself!….and I can honestly say to this day that the road to hell was never more solidly paved! But don’t get me wrong, I hold as deep suspicions about “orthodox” medicine….and I have memories of the family doctor  (whose child had the same christian name as myself and also suffered from asthma) using me as a guinea-pig for any new industrial/medical concoction dreamed up as a ‘cure’….”…and he seemed such a nice chap” as my mother would say. While the orthodox doctor may indeed bury their mistakes, the alternative pickle theirs! Having had everything from suction cups to dubious creams and healing hands smeared all over my skin, over more than a decade of compliant naivety, I have to say that such applied medicine is by far the preferred option to the plethora of applied psychology of the “empowering guru”! Yes…ah yes!…I suffered from that one too….why are they always smiling?….I gaze at my empty wallet now and I am enlightened, for while even Jesus and Socrates struggled to realise the nexus between philosophy and pecuniary interest, with the modern “practitioner”it is a seamless weld!….When one looks back over those wide plains of time and life-experience, the entire schamozzle can best be seen as a sort of  Key-stone cops bugger-up overlaid with the closing theme music from the “Benny Hill Show”…you know : Yah dah dada-dadah….!

I wasn’t going to regale you with any tales but one springs to mind that will reveal all…

Our family was “encouraged” to take part in a “circle-dance” in the first moon cycle on the sand at Henley Beach. We were sitting on the sand there at the bottom of the steps waiting for “Marcie” who at that moment appeared at the top of the steps… “Oh look!..” one person said, “She isn’t wearing her glasses….you know, she’s been taking that potion to strengthen her vision and she has been seeing “Janice” about ‘overcoming with  her mind’ so she can stop using her glasses”….Indeed, there she was, hand on the rail stepping elegantly with pointed toe straight toward us measured step by step with all the grace of a queen….we sat there in silence, in awe….then at the foot of the steps, while staring dead straight at us, she suddenly threw a lefty and started to walk away up the beach!…….yes..yes…blind as a bat!….”Marcie, Marcie” we called…………..

There will always be those who cannot help but seek out the oracle and worship the idol, but of course, one would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the beneficial uses of organic compounds and comforting meditations, alas, I am always drawn to a maxim from my father…: “Doctors, priests and lawyers..;one will ruin your health, one will ruin your soul and the other your pocket!” Mind you, with this “lateral spine” I suffer from, what I wouldn’t give for a damn good massage!

 

Cruel Madonna

 

It was a month now since he had first gone to her, and his perceptions of her had shifted from that initial phase of blind adoration to a more abstract collation of her little mannerisms.

 

Malcolm was twenty-seven years old, an illustrator-painter who, like most artistic types that arise from the ranks of the working class, made his living from menial labour: Malcolm worked in a shop selling pizzas! His illustrations were sometimes commissioned by obscure magazines and he also sketched houses for real-estate agents’ catalogues. He never associated with any ‘artistic’ set, in fact he winced at the pretentious grouping of that elite class. Instead, he spent his spare time nurturing the skills for his temperamental dedication to his craft that helped him to produce, for his own needs, a creditable portfolio of water-colours, sketches and pastels which he kept in a room of his small flat at The Bay. Now it was high summer, the acres of beach thrilled to the delightful squeals of childish glee and the shoreline oozed that faintly sulfurous tang of heated sea-water that flares the nostrils and excites the brain! Like a beacon to the idle and dispossessed it lured youth to that sandy expanse, the gentle lapping of waves playing a sweet tune to the laughter and cries of a delightful seraglio!

 

Malcolm stood under the kiosk verandah. He had come to buy drinks and an ice-cream for themselves and her children. He paused under the shade of that portico and gazed out with his artist’s eye over the road to the sea. All was opposites; black to white, sand to bitumen, light to shadow, silhouette to glare, diamond to iron. The shadow of the verandah cut a sharp, precise line edge to the bitumen footpath. The sun was at its zenith, there was no blurring of shadow to light, just a clear-cut concise line to demark one from the other.

 

He grimaced as he stepped bare-footed out onto the waxy bitumen, then juggling drink and ice-creams, danced with a fire-walker’s jerky step as he tiptoed swiftly but painfully across the scorching road. With each placing of his foot the hot road ‘bit’ and the sun seared down onto his sea-salt dried skin so it raked across his shoulders like a harridan’s claw! But oh! that lovely sea air and the cries of happy children, a gull banked spread-winged against the azure sea; a collage : a fixed image in his mind – another time will recall…Pausing momentarily under the shady boughs of a small tree on the edge of the path to the beach, he gazed hungrily at the long white of sand sweeping north to The Bay with the ‘stretched’ optical illusion of the seashore and esplanade buildings all a-wobble in the rising waves of heated air. He inhaled ecstatically…

 

a sigh!…

 

“Sometimes (he reflected for the words) …there is too much of nature and not enough of human,” he sighed.

 

“Malcolm,” she called…

 

He turned and went down the path to the expectant faces crowded under the beige ‘moana’ beach-shade. As he came close to her, she turned her gaze upon him, stunned, he stopped for a moment to admire her flawed beauty, flawed, for a small scar penciled over her left eye from a motor accident in her youth, but still so beautiful for her obvious Irish features and that calm patience that seemed to weigh down on motherhood as an accepted fate.

 

Malcolm stared at her for that moment and a thought arose in his mind:

 

“I’ll have to paint a portrait of her” …he decided all of a sudden… “a portrait of a Madonna!”

 

That evening he broached the subject of his painting a portrait of her.

 

“Uh huh,” …she responded calmly… “with or without any clothes on?…and will there be any paint on the brush?” she finished with a wry smile.

 

“With clothes on, of course!” he answered defensively, “…and what do you mean by ‘paint on the brush?’ ”

 

She smirked cheekily..with worldly knowledge of men more sophisticated than she let on.

 

“Oh, you would read of those men that were always looking for “photographic models” but there was never any film in the camera!” ..and she tossed her blond tresses back carelessly and laughed and her eyes sparkled for that worldly absurdity and naivety of men’s hunger for the female nude.

 

Her laughter awoke insight in Malcolm just at that moment ( for isn’t it always only given in fleeting moments? ;…a spice scent on a zephyr sent…a stranger’s eyes reflected upon a window pane in passing….should one stop? wasn’t that….? no, moment gone!) and he realised that encompassed within that feminine physiognomy of beauty are all the genetic instructions for confounding the male of the species; all the wiliness of thousands of years of the socially bludgeoned “faithful servant,” against which the male has but one advantage : physical strength, brute strength and in degrees does a man grow weaker and more feeble, in the same measure must women lose their youthful allure..yet their character grow stronger..the man cannot win!

 

For the next few weeks he worked at the portrait, the portrait he had fixed in his mind from that afternoon at the beach. Sometimes he would paint from memory of her; at other times she would model, draped with a silken cloth so he could capture light and shade within the folds of the cloth as it curved over her shoulders.

 

It was at these sittings she would tease him, not taking seriously that desire of artistic creation sought by Malcolm; the artist, but already unknowingly possessed by herself ; the woman.

 

“Some native tribes would refuse photographs to be taken of themselves as they feared it was stealing their spirit…” she coyly said… “Are you trying to steal mine?” she smiled.

 

“Don’t smile and don’t joke,” he commanded…”Madonna’s are too sacred to be flippant” and he bent close to the canvas to touch a little paint. She took this moment of his lack of attention to re-adjust, stealthily, the soft cloth draped over her breasts so that between the folds gentle, one erect pink nipple and a blush of oriole protruded proudly, she settled back poker faced and waited….he looked up again, palette aslant, brush poised…his brow knitted but for a moment at something different about her pose…then he saw…her left eyebrow rose ever so slightly, ever so slowly….he placed the brush and palette on the table and turned to her.

 

“That’ll be enough art for today,” he spoke quietly.

 

Her hand reached out and lifted a long stemmed rose off the side table. He sat close to her. Her hands cupped and cradled the pale, pink rose, its long stem lay across her garment, she lifted it gently to inhale its scent, his fingers softly flowed through her voluminous hair. A petal fell silently onto the folds of soft cloth; his eyes followed its descent, one eyebrow arched:

 

“Of jealousy….despair?” he teased.

 

Her lips formed into a confident smile:

 

“And why not?” she toyed.

 

” ‘Tis woman’s privilege…” he answered gently, she settled back into the soft pillows on the couch.

 

“And man’s pleasure?” she coaxed.

 

“Ah!…” and he bent down to kiss her, at the same time taking the rose from her hand and dropping it onto the floor, as it touched the tiles, some petals fell off exposing the rich , rosy heart of the bud inside…

 

The finished portrait bothered him, it was all there but it was dead, flat, strictly two-dimensional and if one thing killed the portrait it was the eyes…the eyes, the eyes…try as he might, he was unable to excite in that Madonna the life needed to complete the picture. He made visits to the art gallery to study portraits of past masters, but to no avail, he looked over prints of other Madonna’s by Da Vinci, Titian, Michelangelo…. They had captured that serene beauty, that silent power of the patient pose. What was their twist!? Were the skills of those past ages so much greater than now? Was his talent that much inferior that given the same subject, same material, where they produced gold he could only master clay? Was it a greater affiliation with the artistic psyche, something which modern man has traded away along with so many other emotions?

 

Malcolm stood awed before these other portraits, just so much history now, yet greater than our own feeble posturing at art, he flung the prints to the floor, bitter and frustrated at his own failings.

 

“What is art now,” he asked himself…” but a whore modern man satiates himself upon when he tires of the fight….” he pursed his lip thickly, sulkily then spoke again. “Sometimes we admire it….sometimes we are it,” and he threw himself down on the couch and stared fixedly at the portrait of his Madonna.

 

After dinner that night they sat talking to each other at the kitchen table, small talk of minor events of the day. The children played in and out of the kitchen, they played chasing games, dressing games and guessing games, they played continuously and as Malcolm talked he worked combination after combination of eyes over and over in his mind and applied them mentally to the portrait much as a police officer would do with an ‘Identikit’ portrait. He started pondering on a line of thought in his conscious mind.

 

“Could it possibly be that modern woman defies depiction in that once seemingly ageless style of motherhood?” he mused. “For here is a ‘single mother’ with three children, would the pressures of money, food, clothing, housing and then our relationship place such a heavy burden on her life as to extinguish all illusions of naive innocence?”

 

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

 

“Oh,” he moved his arm, “of how you manage by yourself, with the kids….then me.”

 

She gazed at him squarely with deadpan eyes.

 

“Sometimes you silently scream, sometimes you softly soothe, and then sometimes you go a little mad!”

 

She turned her head and narrowed her eyes for just at that very moment, the youngest child reached up from behind the chair in playfulness and pulled her long locks of hair. She resisted, he laughed and pulled harder.

 

“Sam,” she spoke threateningly “if you don’t let go at once, you’ll – be – dead – meat!!” and as she spoke these words she turned her face down to him and her eyes narrowed cruelly.

 

Malcolm gasped as he witnessed this little scene …for there, contrasted against that Irish beauty of face, the long tresses of golden hair and soft mouth were the threatening eyes..; there in an instant, alongside the wily eyes, the loving eyes, the caring eyes, the worrying eyes, the killing eyes…these were the eyes of his woman on the canvas, as changing as a chameleon’s colour, one moment as warm as an autumn sunset, then as cold as polar ice!

 

These were the eyes of a modern Madonna…a more worldly Madonna….a cruel Madonna!