A small yellow flicker

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The sun sheds a pale late-afternoon yellow as the car splashes through the puddles along the long driveway, past the waving gums, to my grandfather’s farm. The puddles were so deep last time we came that I imagined becoming bogged and drowning out there – the car sinking to a slow gurgling death with us trapped inside. When I was a child the puddles didn’t scare me, I knew they teemed with life, with millions of tadpoles to be caught in glass jars. I took the jars filled with murky water back down the highway home. Then I would wait anxiously for limbs to sprout, small buds that would become legs, a burst of metamorphosis from tadpole to frog. It was like waiting for the snowdrops to sprout and unfurl their perfumed bells in my grandmother’s garden, when the peaty smells of spring were everywhere. This waiting for something to happen was the essence of my late childhood.

As we drove down the Anglesea road my sister and I would compete to see who would first spot the long row of eucalypts lining the driveway, yelling out, “There it is!” It was as though the holidays could not really begin until we were at the farm. I slept in my mother’s old low-sprung single bed, and my sister slept in my aunt’s and on afternoons when the dark would creep in early we would delve into the old chest of drawers and tie on dusty scarves, and pin on sparkly brooches. It was hard to imagine them ever being as small as we were. Their beds curved low and cradled us softly. Our cousins would often spend holiday time at the farm too. The four of us dressed up in musty coats and adult sized trousers and did performances of tales like Billy Goats Gruff (where we’d argue over who’d play the troll). We would practise all day and put on a show for the grown-ups when the fire was lit in the evening. My eldest cousin to always be cast in the lead role. The adults clapped us and afterwards there were boiled eggs and toast soldiers, and bowls of ice cream with sticky sweet strawberry topping. During the day there was so much to do – lambs to be bottle-fed, haystacks to climb and eggs to collect – yet the holidays stretched on endlessly.

After my sister died and my younger brother was born I helped him explore the farm too, showing him where the hens hid their eggs in the hayshed and which puddles were best for tadpoles. He liked playing with the old plastic farm set, too, spread out on the lounge-room floor, with its herds of sheep and cows, miniature versions of the snuffling, breathing versions outside.

We pull up outside the house and crunch to a stop on the white stones. The steam from the engine drifts a little as we wait for my grandfather to come out. Even though he can’t hear much he seems by some other sense to know when we arrive, like a cat. He walks out onto the verandah, bowed and small, and the rusted wire screen door gives a small creak of welcome. We pull ourselves out of the warm car and greet him, my mother and I, each kissing his bony cheek. With a gentle brush my mother wipes his chin, and turns quickly sideways. I see a silvery hint of tears welling.

It is damp so we venture inside. My grandfather rushes ahead to turn the gas heater on for us city folks; he seems not to need it. I have come upon him at times huddled over the heater, but with only the pilot light on, as though sucking warmth from its feeble flame. Even with the heater on the house is still cold. It is a sturdy house, its walls giant concrete slabs. Built in 1940, after the graceful timber house exploded in a crescendo of flames, it is a testament to durability, rather than comfort or design. Some have joked that this stubborn house and its contents could withstand nuclear attack. But inside its cold walls my grandfather slowly ages, the pictures fade and the red-patterned carpet, once cherished, wears thin. There is a worn trail up the hallway that stops briefly at the bathroom, then continues up to the bedrooms at the other end of the house.

As we walk down the hall towards the red-and-white tiled kitchen I stop and look, as I always do, at the photographs of all our extended family members, Most of the photographs are more than ten years old, as though we are all (aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews) children still, suspended in our development. As though to keep alive those of us pictured who have in real time long since passed on.

In the sitting room there is a photograph on top of the television of two young girls, aged about six and nine, wearing pastel pink dresses and slippers, with flowers in their hair. They are my older cousin and I, dressed as flower girls for my uncle’s wedding. It is not a posed photograph. My cousin holds a can of insect spray poised, and she and I are crouched down at the porch steps, looking down, and the backdrop is my grandmother’s beautiful garden.  There are other photographs in an album somewhere tucked away, of others in the wedding party. My uncle’s wild hair and flowing sideburns date these photographs, as he stands proudly in his brown flared suit. My shy uncle is waiting on the circular lawn, and at this point there is no sign of my aunt-to-be.

Standing under a gently cascading tree and slightly behind my uncle is my grandmother, her hands clasped together. The tree seems to hang over her protectively and her face is pale and thin. My grandmother died only a year or so after these photographs were taken, and I wish I knew her. I do know my mother was completely devastated. And so my grandfather was left alone in this big, white house, and has been so ever since.

Even today there are gentle reminders of her scattered about – a bottle of mauve hair dye in the bathroom, some knitting needles and thimbles, her favourite china tea set, festooned with roses. I ask my mother if my grandfather were different when his wife was alive, if he was ever much of a conversationalist. She thinks a while and remembers that he was always there at mealtimes, but that it was more her mother that did the talking. She smiled and said that she and her father did have some good talks, though they were rare and thus precious.

As usual the television is on. We have timed our visit to arrive for afternoon tea and I turn on the tap to fill a kettle. The water pressure is so low it takes some time to fill, and I wonder how high the dam is. There are five occasions for tea – with each meal and at morning and afternoon tea. Tea always tastes better down here – my mother says it is the rainwater that makes the difference. I think it is also the ritual, and the feeling of being away from the city, amongst the gums in the cold air. My mother asks her usual questions about our relatives, my grandfather’s carpet bowls, and his health. My grandfather nods and answers yes to some open-ended questions, so my mother repeats them, more loudly. He tells her he has given away the bowls – it is too hard driving at night, he says. I suppose that out here on his farm he might be too far for someone to collect him. But he would never dream of asking.

Since my parents moved north their visits here are far less frequent, and my mother appears shocked at the decline in the place each time. And she worries that she is so far away and feels able to contribute little to its upkeep. But there are some signs of attempted resuscitation – new light fittings splatter light into shy dusty corners, and the long driveway has been graded. And all of the children pitched in for a new television for my grandfather’s last birthday, a small gesture acknowledging the role it plays in his routine. It has a wide screen, but its very modernity seems only to highlight the sagging ceiling above it.

When my grandmother died my grandfather had some in-home help. A lady called Joy came and cleaned the house – she was so thorough she would polish the brass door handles – and would then put on a roast for lunch. When this was all done she and my grandfather would sit and drink tea together, laughing softly. But Joy has long since retired and the woman who now visits barely even dusts the place before disappearing. And now the muddy puddles up the drive contain no sign of life.

As my mother and I take a walk in the dusk it appears as though the farm has slowly gathered detritus to it like a magnet – it has become a final resting place for of all of my uncle’s used farm machinery and my cousin’s abandoned utes. Long rippling grass covers the remaining expanses. I know that down there under the ground also lie the buried bones of hardworking farm dogs that used to salivate at the prospect of some attention. My grandfather never patted them – they were working dogs – but they would follow him, fawning, nonetheless.

As we walk past the deserted sheep pens and dilapidated barns my memory stretches and wobbles but I can vaguely remember a woolshed full of skittish sheep and swearing shearers, cursing in the midday heat. And troughs of snivelling pigs, and over in the dairy a dappled row of dairy cattle with their udders connected to machines, rubber hoses attached like umbilical cords. And back then there was always warm fresh milk for gulping and yellow-yolked eggs whistled in a pan.

My grandfather still takes a bow-legged walk out to the chookpens twice a day – to let them out, lock them up. I notice he doesn’t bother taking his slippers off now, although he pulls on his woollen cap. On our walk today he tells me that this batch of bantams is new, the foxes took six of the last lot, the buggers. Though now even the foxes are strangely scarce – now there are no spring lambs to prey upon. All you can hear is the wind whistling on the grass.

The house used to glisten in the sun, a crisp white foil to the luscious garden filled with roses, camellias and old-fashioned bulbs. A couple of years ago my grandfather climbed onto his ladder and painted the windowsills and door frames a jaunty yellow. As we stand near the verandah saying farewell he looks up wistfully at the grass growing from the gutters, and I am glad he has forsaken that rickety ladder. We promise that one of the cousins will deal with the gutters.

And so it seems grandfather’s patterns of activity around the farm are finally slowing, like an old-fashioned top coming slowly to rest. His circles and traced paths become smaller and narrower, as he admits he can do less around the place than he used to. And a week or so back he fell and wasn’t found for some hours. I wonder what he thought about as he lay there, prone, up behind the grain shed. Did he think about what had come and what he had lost in all his eighty-nine years?

Despite his mishaps he insists he’ll go on strong a while yet, ticking off on his fingers the number of siblings he has still alive, and those of his line who lived past one hundred. He boasts he’s had one day off sick in all of his years. And, like jettisoning unwanted weight from a life raft, he seems to be simplifying his life even more. The warmth of the occasional visitor, a plain boiled egg and a small yellow flicker is enough for him now. But perhaps he’s the kind of man for whom that’s always been enough.

23 September 2002

Postscript: My grandfather died in January 2003, and was buried the day my first child was due. I sat in the funeral home, clasping my heavily pregnant belly, crying gently.