Poetry

Absent

The old fella inhabits a prison made of white walls. They’ve taken his stained felt hat because someone complained, but he doesn’t remember it. Nor the moleskins, or denim and checked shirts that he donned every morning of his life. Now he wears drawstring trousers, and a loose shirt of blue, wandering along the corridors, past other walkers. Sometimes he cleans the tiles of his bathroom, or listlessly sits before the window that will not open.

At dinner time they call his name, but he doesn’t raise his head or turn, just waits until they set food down in front of him. He lives in this silence. The silence of forgetting.

At night, when he lays his body down between starched sheets, the pillow cradling his head into sleep, his mind comes alive, and he has strange and stirring dreams: of life on the stock route, with a sky more infinite than the years that stretched out in front of him. The power of a game colt between his knees, and his thighs locked hard against the kneepads the only thing between him and the ground. Ah, how he’d loved spirit, in beasts and people alike.

At night he can almost smell the yards: dust, gidgee smoke and the branding-iron’s burn. The scent of fillet steak frying and spitting in a cast-iron pan and the taste of rum after two weeks in the stock camps. The glow of the January sun as it arced through the trees towards dusk, and the feel of creek water on his skin. Raw, real, elemental things.

He lives again through years when the ground dried and cracked, of bank managers and the mongrels who smell men when they’re down as if they are carrion, and swarm in to pick the bones. He dreams of good seasons that seemed as if they’d never end, with mitchell grass on waving flats, fat cattle and big cheques.

He dreams of people too, and good Christ he wishes he could be with them most of all. Mates like brothers and their stories, on the track and around the fire. And where’s that girl, with hair so soft against his fingers, so loyal and brave, who he swore to cleave to for all his days? Well, he tried, didn’t he? But sometimes life can be so cruel. Sometimes life can be so hard.

In the morning he wakes without memories of his unconscious roving. His mind has emptied, like a river draining to the arid core, and again he walks the corridors alone, or cleans his bathroom, until one of the nurses makes him lie down; turns on the television.

Sometimes, he doesn’t know how often, a nurse takes him for a walk outside, three or four of them together, and the golden sun sends tremors through the muscles of his legs and the core of his heart. One day he peels fibres from a flax plant in the garden and he begins to plait them, his fingers nimble again, his whole being focused on the work he once did with greenhide.

‘You’re very clever,’ says the nurse, ‘but you’re not taking that back inside with you.’

Visitors come sometimes, but he can’t recall their faces, or their names. But they set off sparkling thoughts: memories, recollections, always out of reach. If only he could pluck them from the air! Sometimes the visitors weep as if he were dead. Sometimes they bring in things to show him, to place in his hands, a pair of spurs, or a tobacco tin of opal chips.

‘Do you remember?’ they ask.

There’s a sad old lady who comes more often than the others. With a much younger woman who looks a lot like her. One day she fixes a photograph to his wall. It’s of a beautiful woman and a strapping bloke in the full sunshine of their lives. All dressed up on the verandah of a rough but well-built cottage. He wears a suit, and she a long white dress, holding a bouquet of roses. They’re smiling at the camera and each other, obviously in love.

‘That was us,’ she says, then kisses his forehead and leaves.

When they have left his room, and passed through the locked front door of his prison to the car park outside, he sits on the bed and stares at the picture. He can’t remember why tears are streaming down his face. Lost in the silence of forgetting.

Greg Barron 2022