Doctorshoot – Ant Man - Inventor of Children
That great Cathedral space which was childhood – Virginia Woolf
Bucko and I were like Laurel and Hardy. I bent my lanky scrawny frame around my bike, low for less wind resistance. I tried to keep up with him as he pedalled upright; knotted long white hair bobbing and flashing with it’s nest of wind-filtered debris. Grinning like the mad dog he was.
My father, god rest his beautiful gentle soul, was cash poor but rich in finer things. He was unable to buy me the bike I so desperately wanted (and a guitar and a saxophone), but he took me aside by the firelight one night; alone with him in the old creaking wooden living room with it’s thick motheaten colonial carpets, and he brushed the scraps of dinner from the front of my pyjamas.
“I have something for you” he said in a soft, and I felt then, proud voice. It wasn’t christmas or a birthday but I felt the excitement swelling behind the warm spot where he had finished brushing my belly with an affectionate rub like a football trainer massaging the wounded star. He went to the special locked sideboard and my heart sank. What could fit in there?
Bucko swerved in front of me, first into the green Jackass dam riparian approaches and then bursting through the skinny wattles; all charge and yahoo, then right into the muddy water up to his knees. I skidded on the bank and slid to the water edge amongst yabbies and rotten leaves. We were exhausted and laughing.
That’s when we spotted him. Across the dam in the forest shadows; a black figure flickering and gone. We stopped mid scraw and held a glance as if to assure each other. Bucko dragged his bike back out of the mud. He had no brakes as was the fashion of the brave; he pushed a sandshoe against the tyre if slowing down was ever a necessary course of action. Now we were both stopped in our tracks. We left our bikes against trees and scrambled off around the muddy edge and up over Tysons mound and through the barbed wire fence into the forest, after the ghost.
The big wooden drawer squeaked and grunted as it opened and I could smell parrafin oil and dust. Dad carefully lifted a leather folder and held it in the suspense of his memory for ever. I waited. Then he turned and brought it to me.
I had never asked him about the war because mum said not to. He didn’t want to talk. He let us look through all the back volumes of Kahki & Green with their endless jokes about ‘Pull your head in mate” and paintings of heroic soldiers lugging cannons through the tropical mud forests of New Guinea, and shouldering bandaged comrades through swamps, but he never talked about it. Now he handled this big leather folder like an explosive, and brought it to lie on the carpet in front of me.
Three weeks later in mathematics, when, for the first time ever I drew some praise from Mr Hughes for my attempts to make the slide rule and compass produce an isometric description of a transparent tetrahedron, I was interrupted, because of Dad’s folder I guess. Taken to the headmaster and given the cuts. Mr Mac, towering six foot six with his leather barber strap. My tentative hand out, forced out into the air, and the big wind-up and down it came. Crack! And my hand went red. Again and Again. “I’m sorry young Doc but somebody has to teach you a lesson” The sweat clattering off his face onto the gleaming leather weapon. Crack! Each blow forcing the secrets deeper and deeper inside me, and knowing my guilt, accepting my fate. Only not knowing which particular misdemeanour was being heralded and exorcised.
Bucko’s shirt had torn on the barbed wire fence we had piled through, and he wiped the blood from his side with the back of his hand. Then rubbed it against his nose as the unstoppable river of Bucko snot always demanded. He looked like a wild eyed warrior idiot as he crept ahead of me, scouting for a trail. I laughed every time he peered back over his shoulder.
I had never been this far off the back of Jackass dam. It was forbidden. Even collecting birds eggs we didn’t come this far. They said old man Tyson would shoot on sight. We went deeper and deeper and the tree trunks became thicker. Great Turpentines and Angophoras watching us from their towering white branches. Then we spotted a clearing. You could see the gold aura ahead where sunlight flooded into a space in the forest, and it seemed that a big earth hill rose out of the ground in the middle. Curling grey smoke dissippated from it’s peak. We huddled at the edge of the clearing. Bucko’s wet trousers smelt of the dam and my shirt was wet and muddy still. We were like two sperm hovering in the undergrowth, contemplating the approach, contemplating the egg.
The fire smelt raw and warm as my dad carefully opened his gift. Page after page after page of stamps. The full collection. The full set. The stamps of Papua New Guinea and New Britain from 1938 to 1942. Cassowaries, thatched huts, outriggers. I watched as this gentle and amazing man gently touched one image or another behind clear tissue paper, the images calling my eyes from their wandering thoughts, diving now into the thick black-page mountings that cradled imagery. Some pages also had mounted pen and ink sketches which he and his friends from the regiment had done. I asked stupid questions but he only smiled and kept turning the pages for me. Suddenly my father had turned heroic and for an instant he let me lean up against his being. “It’s for you” he said simply, then he stood leaving me with the folder, went back and locked the sideboard drawer again, and left the room.
Bucko decided to let me go ahead. I stood, and strode brilliantly for a couple of paces, right into the clearing, right through the cracked long dry grass. Right up to the giant earthmound. Then a sound. I froze. A sound. What was it. A cough. I looked back at Bucko uncertain. If I ran for it I was certain to shit myself. Then silence. I turned back toward the mound and another cough. “Hello?” I pleaded softly, ready for my fate, not worse than having to wash poop out of one’s shorts most likely but certainly unknown.
He touched me from the other side. The side I was not looking toward. His great bony hand on my shoulder like the claw of the eagle reaching from the book of kells to grab the innocent lamb. Involuntary squirts came from every orifice though I was too frightened to actually cry. I dared to look up toward his hooded face, way up there. From amongst the height of the tallest leaves his voice came down at me: “would you like some raisins?”
He’s going to poison me but what can I do? I am a lamb to the slaughter. I glanced toward the empty space at the edge of the clearing where the feckless Bucko had once been, and then gave myself up; allowed myself to be guided step by step around the great mound to the doorway of hessian sacks and beaten out tin cans. Into the mound; and into the cave of the inventor.
He coughed a lot and smoked incessantly. His face was a molten rubber mask of folds and lines. In the smokey light of his fireplace I could make out glitters in the mask where his eyes would surely be, and his very thick lips were pasted wide across his face and seemed wet.
We talked and talked and I ate his raisins and drank tea with him. Everything smelled and tasted of damp burned eucalyptus. I had to participate as I was his prisoner but I thawed in awe. He seemed as frail as transparent paper. He told me about the planets and how they were all in balance because they had pockets of protection and that they bumped softly against each other in a relative way. He told me that the Egyptians had built their pyramids by lifting them with little pyramids stuffed with prisms. “It breaks down the pressure of light you see” he said as long as it doesn’t escape it can lift anything. “Mirrors and prisms and angles” he said. And he told me that the great wall of china was glued together with rice flour and his ant mound in which he lived was made of rice-flour and eggs and water and ant hills crushed up and not even the strongest bulldozer could break it.
He told me that the planet earth had been originally populated by strange creatures half snake half bull and all sorts of other combinations and that the planet had been seeded by a tree which contained all of the genetic material of the world. “They are still up there” he said, “and that’s why they need worship, to stay alive”.
I walked away from the anthill, out of the clearing into the forest. It took me a long time to find the Jackass dam again and by the time I reached it Bucko was lying next to the bikes with his clothes drying on a branch and two soggy cigarettes drying on a rock. “You ok?” eyebrows up a little but careless too as if it had been expected.
“He’s crazy but he didn’t try and hurt me, and he’s got this hut full of pictures that he cut out of library books” I said.
From the great height the last blow reigned down. Six on each hand had been my serve. I gritted as hard as I could and would not cry though the last couple had cut against the bones of my fingers. I think old Mac admired me for that. He put the strap back into his wooden bureau drawer pushed me down into his chair with his big meaty paws. “Wait here for five minutes and then you can go back to class” he said, and “I hope you have learned a lesson”. His enormous frame filled the opening as he left and when he closed the door behind him it felt like the credits rolling after doc holliday had cleaned them all up at the OK corrall.
I had been hiding my bike down in the reeds next to the trotting track and each day we went back after school and tried to find the clearing again.
On the weekend we cut Sunday school and spent our collection money at Rechters café where the paraphernalia of rock and roll and cigars and billiard queues and juke box selectors in booths was akin to a rococco cathedral. Bucko shared some extra cash he had collected from milk bottles left out by householders and we beat the older kids to the best music for that glorious day. We planned to visit Mr Peterson again and take him some food.
Winter arrived suddenly and Bucko was away from school, sick. Alone I went back and, after several searches, found the clearing again. Old Mr Peterson’s coat was on his hessian sack bed, just a bedraggled mess, with a sack of bones inside. I was shocked and ran and got lost for hours. A week later I went back and found it again but empty, though the billy still hovered above the cold fireplace, and the boxes of raisins nestled amongst the tobacco tins on his shelves. The earth floor was so cold it was moist. I hauled all his things out into the clearing and set fire to them, all his papers and bedding and everything I could move. I don’t know why.
The fire got away a bit, into the forest, and I fled.
I remembered Bucko as I ran. As we had ridden back along the track from Jackass dam, he had been kicking my bike a few times to try and knock me off. We stopped and I adjusted my brakes. “where’d you get it? He asked”
“I traded it for some stamps” I said.
Now Bucko was gone and I never saw him again, and I supposed all the blame must have been mine.