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|Famous Reporter # 33|
When his wife left him, well that was bad enough, but when she got full custody of the girls and then skipped the country on a phony passport it damn near tipped him over the edge. Went home she did, to her Mother Country; that miserable little place where peace had never been known. It would suit her to do that, it would suit her fine; she could use her two-edged vitriolic tongue as a sword to rive her way to the top. That damn woman was born a politician. A net-worker extraordinaire. Intense to a level of neurosis. There was no room in their lives for the niceties (the frivolities, she said), no quiet dining, no soft music, no silly jokes, nothing but a constant succession of hard work and intense moments. Oh, bugger her! Good riddance to the hapless bitch.
Or so he sometimes ranted in his gloomier moods, in the empty echoing rooms of the house, where once his little ones had been saying goodnight to him; curling themselves up in their little woolly blankets, blowing him kisses from the dark. But even as he stormed against such imposition he knew it was all a little phony. To be absolutely honest he could have even said he sometimes missed the drama. But she shouldnt have taken the girls with her; his darlings, his little dark angels.
The teenage boy, of course, she left with him. Your responsibility comrade, she told him. He can help you run your KFC franchise. Dear God! dealing in chicken pieces. Such a soulless occupation! She didnt know how anyone could stand it. What a laugh that was, hed only been in it to make money for her and the children in the first place and he worked his arse off for it, seven days a week, twelve hours a day. But that wasnt good enough, so shed pissed off with two thirds of their dual bank account and the pick of the litter.
A few weeks after he got her letter telling him that she was gone from his reach and was never coming back he had taken a further bad turn and against the advice of his financial adviser hed relinquished his franchise and just dropped out. Went fruit picking with the boy at his side the cross hed been lumbered with, forever. The boy sometimes helping but mostly being kept out of the way because he was dozy and likely to ruin as much fruit as he picked. It had been like that from the day the boy was born, awkward and slow, were the words that sprang to mind. Certainly not the kind of son hed hoped for. And, although from time to time he had tried to find something that might capture the boys attention and put a sparkle in his eyes (his mothers beautiful eyes) he failed always, because no matter what, nothing was reflected there but dawdling confusion. The lad seemed to be weighed down with thoughts he couldnt or wouldnt verbalize. Even several sessions with a renowned psychologist didnt penetrate the boys doughy shield. Nothing new came to light. Nothing he didnt already know. I.Q. all over the place, high in the area of maths but rock bottom in verbal skills. Nothing much to worry about, she said. Time and experience would help.
Easy enough for her to say, she didnt have to put up with the boys inadequacies. God-all-mighty, in most cases it was easier to let the gawky lad languish in the shade of the hut all day, listening to taped music and fiddling with a variety of musical instruments some of the other pickers had rashly lent him and encouraged him to play, than it was to kick-start him into life each morning. But then, it was at least an interest for the boy, he told himself. Something to keep the poor lad occupied. Perhaps fiddling about with music helped smooth out the boys untidy mind?
He and the boy, they ate their meals together and slept in the same hut but hardly ever talked. Certainly less and less about family matters. Perhaps that was his fault, the tremble of passion in his contrived breezy words being too easily detectable in those discussions about the boys sisters and mother. Not that the boy ever wanted to discuss it anyway. Unlike his mother, whose debating ability was legendary in the university clique, words were not, by any means, her sons forte. If pushed for an opinion he was more likely to blunder around half-arsed meanings that never quite engaged with his stumbling words. In the end it became all too tedious to keep trying.
Out there in the sun-hot leafy canyons the father chose not to think about it to go on picking whatever he was picking with a mechanical indifference, his mind drifting aimlessly like the slow hot air that went nowhere. Hard work and thankless; and it went on without joy, day after day, week after week, moving along the endless corridors of fruiting, from one harvest to the next, one pickers hut to another no matter where you were, or what you were picking, it was the same monotonous grind nothing changing but the superficial details. How could he have ever thought there was romance in such a business? Horror tale more like. If only the boy was better company. If only he could play cards or discuss the radio news. He sighed heavily the kind of sigh that was becoming habitual.
On the last day of the orange harvest the boy surprised him by suggesting they go to the Harvest Barbecue. There was to be music and dancing and a barrel of beer. But the thought of watching his painfully shy, clumsy-footed son staggering around a bar floor a couple of paces behind the beat didnt appeal to him, and he certainly wasnt in the mood himself for chat and drink. Hardly any of the buggers could speak-a-da English anyway, beyond things like: is a nice night, no? or much hot, yes? Mixing bloody questions with answers. And anyway, to his ear, most of their music sounded strangely tinny and too frenetic by half. So he sat alone that night, in the dark, drinking beer from the esky, listening to the world news on the radio. Mosquitoes and gnats whined around his head, but he ignored them and drank his beer automatically, sipping between each gloomy pronouncement, like each one needed a further take of alcohol to dull the edge of things.
That was when he heard the combination of words that riveted his attention. The announcer was talking of revolution in his wifes Mother Country. The fighting had already reached the outskirts of the capital. It was reputed from some sources that the leader of the revolutionary force was a woman with the very same abbreviated name as his wife. Could it really be? SHITE! She had been so damn secretive those last couple of years; going out to lots of rallies while he worked or baby-sat the girls. Then there was the phony passport. Where did she get that from? One of her strange friends who used to come and go at all hours, no doubt. Blokes with little sharp beards and dark beady eyes you couldnt see into. His objection to that had been a large part of the reason for the final blow-up.
And now, here he was, lonely witness to the passionate tones of the foreign correspondent describing the guns and the fires, the bombs, the strafing and the pools of blood, in the same rising and falling inflections he might have used had it been a faraway footy match. Hearing all this in a fruit pickers hut, on the night of the orange pickers barbecue and dance, on the banks of the Murray River, in far away Australia; hearing a blow for blow account of a woman who might well be his estranged wife taking over an entire country.
In the stifling heat of the room he felt a draining away of something he couldnt quite name, a hollowness coming upon him, a feeling descending from out of an ethos devoid of hope or meaning. And thankfully it was then, in his moment of black doubt, that he heard the sound of possible salvation rising above the trembling thuds of the bombs and the death-rattle of automatic firepower. Salvation borne on a piece of delightful music coming through the open window out of a darkened night, a golden flowing, so beautiful, so moving, it made his heart pound. He switched off the radio and sat motionless, letting the music flow over him. He felt like he was being wrapped in the sound, stroked by it, cushioned by it.
From his verandah he could see the soft flickering glow of a fire down through the laneway of pickers huts that led to the machinery sheds. The music was coming from there from the dance/barbie. He had to be closer, he had to flood his head with such music drench himself in it. So he had no choice but to seek out its source, to follow its call down the long laneway through the dark night and into the edge of the firelight, where he stopped. There in the flickering glow he saw the one responsible for such a wondrous sound. A bent figure, huddled over the instrument a violin embracing it as a lover, coaxing out of it, bow to string, the essential mysterious sweetness it held within.
Yes, a dark youth, he is swaying with the music, swaying like a slender tree sways in an evening wind, delicately and gracefully, Shadows cast by fire dance on corrugated walls in silent acclaim, and gathered all around, their faces lit with wonder, the pickers stand three rows deep, hushed and listening. There are audible murmurs when the music rises and heart-felt sighs when it falls. He is as entranced as the rest and he is there for a long time before he realizes with a shock that it is the boy playing the violin.
When the music stopped, the sound of hands clapping was almost frenzied in their insistent clamour. He moved closer, squeezing his way through the crowd of admirers. He and the boy, they stood together on equal terms for the first time his head in a whirl. Your son is the savant, those clustering around insist. He has taken up the violin and played! Like the maestro the concert music. He listens, he plays, just like that. He has the gift of genius. Not perfect, another said more cautiously but the passion!
There were mostly European backpackers, working their way round the country. Their English was sparse, sure, but their enthusiasm told it all. They would know their violins most likely. Especially the Latins and the Austrians. And no wonder the boy was so damped down all that heavy, emotional music inside him. Perhaps like a release valve the music had suddenly relaxed his insides, for already he could see the boy his boy Reiki becoming more lively than hed ever seen him. He was mingling with all the other pickers, becoming something worthwhile, being handed the violin for further encores. Becoming their minstrel!
And thats how it was that night and thats where it ended. The following morning, Reiki, his semi-retarded son who had become a genius overnight by some accidental magic in the brain, had packed his carry bag in preparation to leave with the Latins and the Austrians heading for the vegetable harvest in the eastern states. In his brief goodbye handshake the boy had actually apologized for being such a disappointment. Such a gap, he seemed to be saying, between what he was and what he was expected to be.
No, no, not disappointment Reiki, he responded heatedly, I just didnt know what weighed you down, but now I know you see, and its okay, you are really something special. You and me, we could storm the world. Believe me son, if I can sell crumbed chicken pieces out of a take-away shop in a street full of take-away shops I could sure peddle musical genius.
But the boy Reiki, his only son, had simply shaken his head resolutely and went right on packing his bag. His most vivid memory of that time was standing in the early morning air, chilled to the bone both physically and spiritually, waving after the convoy of bobbing backpacks the pushing and the shoving and the loud raucous singing to the tune of the violins merry trill; becoming more distant and more distant, until the only thing he could hear was the lone persistent sound of the violin his head. And it went on and on