Most nights Jim finds it hard to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a stretch—he’s seventy. He’d bargain that slippery sleep’s an old man’s lot. Adding to tonight’s fun, arthritis wrings his neck. Also, Jim’s slippers have gone off by themselves to guard the gloom beneath a better man’s bed.
Jim (as always) watched the six o’clock news this evening. ISIL is culling Kurdish rebels and decapitating Christians. Abbott wants Australian boots in Iraq. Jim’s boots aside, he’d prefer if the Prime Minister were to post Jim’s slippers in defence of Australian soil. Jim’s a poet. Slippers on the whole are a species meant to die at home in service of a poet’s feet.
Before bed he’d spent all day writing a poem, a piece about Morocco. The Barbary Coast was the first place Jim ever found himself without a lady friend. Lying in bed, residual verses play across his mental airspace. And above the poem, a woman from his past haunts his head. He feels as if a witch were scribing on his mind’s sky with the exhaust of a broom-stick.
Streetlight from Boxer’s Creek Road bleeds through the gauze of his bedroom window. A sound curdles behind the window pane. Jim stiffens. The noise dies in the distance that joins his thoughts to the road. His face flops to the pillow, and his mind sways to the woman again.
She had a thing for animals, a thing for Jim too. He remembers her touches in the kitchen, her ginger tomcat sizzling at him in the sun of the bay window. He recalls the sex. Her nipples—two kittens’ tongues lapping moonlight. He’s best to stop thinking of her.
The poem scrapes in his skull again. He strokes his brow and listens, succumbing to what he hopes is his head’s final poetry recital for the night:
The mustard of whiskey and beer have cut him to make the man he is today—
he’s not too keen on a cup of tea, but the camel-driver nods.
‘It is Moroccan tea,’ says Allam, ‘you will want it.’
Pouring from a jug, he throws a streamer the colour of chartreuse.
The ribbon unfurls with every timeline of palm-shade and delirium
flooding the travelling man’s tea glass with green and oasis.
The tourist snorts a fire fuming from the cup.
He drinks. The glass kisses him.
His lips spark.
His forehead rains.
Then, swivelling his wrist
he sucks the steam with his nose.
And bows his lips to lick again from the pool of peppermint
‘You take another please, my friend.’
Allam watches the traveller’s pleasure and pours the Aussie another cup.
The tourist puts a piece of fruit in his mouth and squashes.
He slurps and his tongue swims—
mint and mandarin spear him between strokes.
From the skin of his teeth, time and sunlight surrender.
A parasol of fronds shiver.
An eddy of sand sugar-dusts the liquorice of his boots.
The sanity of sand, he thinks.
Sand is sensible.
In whichever sandpit I bury my skinny arse,
sand is sane.
And I am lost.
If a bloke in a fez glugs tea to a cup,
someone in sandals twirls fire at Terrigal,
or a riot of Cronullans smash some Lebs—
sand is the same.
I am not.
The night stills. Jim fastens his mind to the silence and wilts into sleep for a few hours.
He wakes and slips his fingertips down the cord of the bed-lamp to find the switch. Jim gives the bedroom light. There’s a black Bakelite job waving all three of its hands at him from the nightstand—five o’clock in the morning. The clock was a birthday gift from a woman called Suki.
Jim kicks the covers, stands and stumbles in the dishwater of the lamp’s light, following the florets on the wallpaper to the en suite toot. The bathroom tiles chill his bare feet and for what feels like five minutes, he leaks like a brumby. Too many cups of tea after dinner, he reckons.
On his way back to bed Jim stops at the bedroom door. The door’s shut. He likes to leave it a bit ajar of a night to create an air current with the window. Jim thinks a draft must have closed it while he was asleep. A shift of the air swings it open across the hall, and a hall-bench and a hatstand slant shadows down the walls of the hallway—if I were to walk down there now, I’d see the silhouettes of all the men I have been, Jim thinks. He shuts the door.
Back in bed, every other second, the flannelette sheet chews a chunk from his bum. Bed bugs like old buggers. He sighs, and supposes his bed bugs are an exercise in the literary-man’s prerogative for a whinge. He keeps his bed clean. But Jim hasn’t always washed his sheets of the fortnight. His lovers had trained him—hung him with their weather beside their bras and panties. He feels a tiny buck in pyjama pants, but his urge melts before he can touch it.
When he was young, Jim worked his way through a lolly jar of women. Most notably, there’d been Suki. Poor pretty pisshead. And Helen. A birthmark smudged Helen across her tummy. The splodge was the colour of fairy-floss and the shape of a Clydesdale’s hoof-print. After her fling with Jim, Helen married a circus Strong-man.
He comes back to Suki. Once she took him for a drive in her Mini to The Mulwaree River in Goulburn. Suki wanted Jim to listen to the water birds with her.
They stood on the foreshore. The reeds whipped Jim’s legs and buzzed him with their bulrushes. The tide soaked his socks through the holes in his shoes.
When the wind lulled for a second, Suki asked, ‘Can you hear the sound of water gurgling in the ducks?’
Jim smiled at her and sniffed. He cupped his hand to his ear. ‘Not yet,’ he said, ‘but I’ll stick with you and try a bit harder, I guess.’ I can’t deal with this madness, he thought, and started to shiver.
‘You’re cold,’ Suki said, ‘I’ll take you home.’
Walking back to the car, Suki stopped. ‘Sweetheart. James,’ she said, ‘I’ve decided that I want to be a poet with you. We’ll take the journeys poets need. I think it’s good for poets to travel, and I’m going to share my money with you.’
‘Righto Suki,’ Jim said.
Jim cracks his neck and relaxes into the pillow. A memory of champagne tingles his palette. He recalls their suite in the Pavillon de la Reine, the slip of silk beneath the glint in their glasses. He proposed to her beside the mini-bar cabinet.
On the first day of their engagement, Suki wired five hundred thousand Francs to Jim’s bank account. ‘It’s your engagement gift,’ Suki said.
Jim’s eyes widened like a pair of dream catchers stretched across his knees.
‘We’ll be equal partners in this marriage, and I want to share the freedom I have to travel alone,’ Suki said. ‘There are times that we need to be selfish to do our work…And also I’d like you to buy me an engagement ring,’ she said, and smoothed a spray of his hair.
‘That’s nice of you,’ Jim said, and thought it might be good to hug her.
A week later they sat on a bench in the Parc de Bercy. Suki cooed, nursing a pigeon in the skirt-folds between her thighs. Feathers moulted and dangled from the bird’s skin. The pigeon’s breaths filled and emptied its breast, and the pores of its chest reminded Jim of his scrotum.
Suki kissed it. ‘Poor darling,’ she said.
Jim felt sick.
The bird gasped at her, and its breaths stopped. Suki stared down the funnel of its throat, ‘We’ll dig you a grave,’ she said to the void in the pigeon’s beak.
It’s half past five in the morning. Jim scratches his stomach and stares into the ceiling rosette above his bed. The flower seems to be wilting—it senses the sun, he thinks, wallflowers wilt without moonlight. Jim recalls a sunflower.
It was the night of the pigeon’s death.
They’d buried the bird beneath a plum tree.
Suki clutched a sunflower she’d bought from a vendor.
She’d laid the stem’s partner above the bird in the ground.
But for her betrothed she bobbled another bloom.
Jim stopped her inside the glow of a Gaslamp.
‘I want to end this with you,’ he said, and stroked his goatee.
‘I’ll give you back your money. It’s only right.’
She froze at him then lashed her shoulder with the blossom.
The flower fell from its stalk and Catherine-wheeled on cobblestones.
She followed its flight.
The acrobatics and the flagstones stayed her.
Some petals played on a moonlit step.
Then by the gutter she saw his reflection in the rain-sheen
and removed her mind.
‘Do you think that I’m crazy because I’m kind?’ she asked.
With the jewel of her engagement ring, she gave his chin a diamond.
‘Goodbye then, Jim. Pay me with poetry…
Write it to yourself you selfish prick,’ she said.
And spat at the stars and walked away.
Jim reckons he might be a bit of a fuckwit sometimes. He might as well get up. After a morning’s writing, he’ll give that stack of scribbly gum in the back shed a good seeing-too. He’s a Goulburn boy. Goulburn Men (even old fuckwits) chop wood for the winter. He leaves his bed. His back complains to Suki’s clock about the time.
Jim settles himself at the desk of his study and continues his ‘Moroccan poem’.
A frond shadow-puppets a sickle each to the men’s throats.
Across from the palm clump, a camel hunches beneath a woven shelter.
She stands in the sand, smiles and shimmies from the sunset.
Nudging her rider with her nose, she closes her eyes.
Allam strokes her eyelids, letting his fingers smudge the ink of her lashes.
‘We go home now, Chef my friend,’ he says to his prize,
‘Before the sand shreds us to strips.’
By late afternoon Jim has a bouncing baby poem and a few extra ideas in his notebook. Scanning the screen of his laptop, the poem’s sounds and images taste sweet in his mouth. The other day, a case of indigestion had gutted him for an hour or two. He’d Googled the anatomy of the stomach. Based on the research, his mind had settled on a metaphor for the body’s digestion of poetry. He reckons it’s good to suck on a poem for a while. The tongue can taste a word’s simple sugars in less than a second, but to be digested the starch in a collection of words needs to be swallowed and churned with the voices in a poet’s stomach.
He prints the poem and reads it once more before filing the sheets in a folio he keeps in the first drawer of his hardwood desk. Jim took about sixty years, but he’s learnt the importance of being an organised poet.
A poem grants parole only on completion of a poet’s first draft. He’s by the shed. He’d wanted to chop the pile in the morning before this evening’s chill, but redrafting his work had shackled him to his desk all day.
Jim feels free. He swings his blade through a chunk of wood and takes a chop of chest-pain. The blow radiates to his elbows. Just heartburn, he reckons. From the branches of blue gum, a butcherbird waits to peck the eyes of a dead man.
Six months ago Suki felt an echo from her insides, her vital organs rehearsing the first notes of her swan song.
She’s always loved the Madeline books and because of these stories she likes French nuns. All her travels had reduced her inheritance to dregs. So she’d released the relics of her finances to a charity hospice in The 18TH District of Paris, a centre for the half-dead run by Catholic nuns. Upon Suki’s donation, the Matron admitted Suki immediately. The hospice is called The Grotto of Saint Julian the Hospitaller.
Suki is a lifelong poet. Poetry is her vocation. One of a poet’s gifts is the ability to transcribe everything prosaic to the meters of poetry. She guesses it’s with a similar sense to hers that a composer of music turns the clucks of a wooden wind chime into the chords of chorus.
Suki’s illness confines her mostly to bed. Her cot’s so old that she wouldn’t be surprised if the sisters nicked it from Joan of Arc when the saint was having confession. To take her mind for a walk, Suki sometimes lapses into a state of poetic rambling. She transcribes the prose of her hospital surroundings into poetry…though on the topic of my death, Suki thinks, I’ve hit a grey area. Does death need transcription? Will I write my death with a poem or will I use prose? Suki wonders. She supposes her genre will be a bastard, and a bit of both.
Whatever death is, Suki tries to let it let it blow over her without it ruffling her with any more of its meaning. She’ll have the pleasure of a visitor tomorrow, and Suki wants her friend to be free from any ruffles. Her companion gets scatty at times.
There’s a knock and a nurse enters with an enamel basin. Suki hears the swash of water.
The Sister is African and speaks into Suki’s eyes.
Be still, ma cherie, I do not wish to wrench your cannula
She swabs a warm splash to one of Suki’s breasts
Jolted by her jaundice, Suki gazes inside herself
To brighten her mind-space, she imagines her boobs
are a pair of plastic plates
her nipples are yellow jelly beans
And from the holes of Sister’s sponge spills coloured water
Suki stretches her head to the nurse’s digits—
The fingers spread from hand-shaped squirts of chocolate sauce
as if she were catering for a child’s birthday party
serving Suki’s death between courses of sweets,
cordial and Rainbow-cake
My darling, Sister Sissy says,
are you prepared for your dialysis in an hour?
No Sister, Suki says, but I will let it drink my blood one more time—
to buy myself tomorrow
Tomorrow is Tuesday. Clarice visits me Tuesdays
Ah, your guineapig amie, Sissy says
I have some raisins for her, Suki says
she is the only thing kind enough to smudge her face between my breasts
I feel as if she were listening
What do you suppose she hears inside me?
I’m thirsty. Can I have a little drink?
Suki could swoon in a swig of French chardonnay
Murder a drop of Alsace Riesling
I will need to check your Fluid Chart first, Suki, Sister says
Suki likes the way Sister Sissy says her name
Through the angles of the nun’s accent
Suki’s sound is two chimes of an orchestral triangle
Sissy snatches Suki’s Obs Chart from the cradle at the foot of her bed
gleams from it, returns it, and says, No, ma cherie
I can allow you only un petite spoonful of ice
Something to chill your tongue
but you mustn’t swallow. Spit
Sissy leaves Suki
There’s an ice-machine in the Nurse’s Station
She comes back with a polystyrene cup
Suki lets herself dream. She’s at home in Goulburn, she knows this by the bird trills in the sky. She stands on the roots of a blue gum. A butcherbird decorates the branches above its nest with someone’s eye and the diamond of Suki’s engagement ring.
She stirs from sleep. Five litres of herself swish beside her
The sound is as though she were driving
Window-wipers swiping rain from her windscreen
Suki sneezes and a tendril of hair wilts from her bun
She brushes the lost coil from her cheek and her ring tweaks her nose
Seeing into the diamond, the cut and precision of its memories
stare her down…
Jim hasn’t got the balls to hold an umbrella between my hair and red rain
but Clarice does