Our Mr Punch
He wasn’t really. Our Mr Punch. But we claimed him for our story telling. For living in a jaundiced brick house that came to life when a model train set was activated at its heart. For the pond of giant gold fish out front and for the life size statue of Black Joe out back. For warning us of the carcinogenic properties of Vegemite. For chasing the Mormons back up his drive-way like a man possessed. For passing mum fish heads wrapped in newspaper over the mission brown fence for soups she would never make.
A wild tuft of dandelion hair on either side of an otherwise egg bald head. An all season tweed jacket, weathered as a scarecrow’s. He had the electrified air of a mad scientist and just enough of a spark in his eye to make us wonder. That was Mr Punch to look at. To listen to he was a musical instrument we had no name for. A beginner’s attempt perhaps, at playing the gum leaf. He spoke in ragged breaths as if there was no sound solid enough to be trusted for more than a few seconds at a time. Our almost stranger neighbour for ten years.
I wonder now, how far we could have ventured beyond the borrowed cup of something.
We pretty much kept to our own boundaries, surveying each other’s lot while taking out the rubbish or bringing in the washing. But there were times. Times when the characteristics of good neighbour and good friend must have been indivisible. When, under cover of beer and politics, men learned deeper things about each other. Dad learned about the white man who left the railways to live with Aborigines before retiring to the suburbs with Black Joe and a dead wife who appeared to him in visions. Mr Punch learned about the Irish boy who left home to join the navy at fifteen before emigrating to the lucky country with an Aussie tom boy who would give him more children than he bargained for.
The ideology of our household teetered between mum’s instinct for getting on with people and dad’s obsession with ‘minding your own business’. Imagination took up the slack as only a child’s imagination can. I devoured Enid Blighton’s ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’, and as a result , my invisible friends all lived inside the trunk and branches of the only pine tree on our front lawn. When I tried to reach the land at the top of the tree, it was Mr Punch, whose body proved to be every bit as agile as his mind as he scaled the branches to coax me back to earth.
Along with Mr Punch, we claimed other local identities as our own. The ‘witch’ who lived alone down the lane that ran alongside the corner milk bar and was only ever glimpsed through a barely parted curtain. The thin old man who roamed our streets like a suspect Father Christmas hauling a sometimes empty, sometimes full hessian sack . Sister Margaret, whose moustache seemed defiantly at odds with her regulation habit.
But it was Mr Punch who provided the fertile ground from which my every day fantasies took seed and flourished unashamedly. The attention he gave Snoopy, his little Australian Terrier, made him a Dr Doolittle, able to talk with the animals. The hours he spent behind the closed doors of his shed made him a Dr Frankenstein, working feverishly away at some hybrid destined to save or destroy the world.
As a product of generations of school teachers on my mother’s side and of the blarney on my father’s, I understood embellishment instinctively. But at what point does the relating of the facts become the telling of the story? The dream become the memory?
I have no memory for instance of Mr Punch setting foot in our house, nor of we in his, but images suggesting acts of kindness if not love have made their way along the family grape vine through my imagining and into my understanding. The tree rescue for one. Then there’s mum after midnight standing at the boundary fence as Mr. Punch passed her the aluminium extension ladder he’d agreed to hide until dad’s birthday. Another time I was granted permission to use Mr. Punch’s shed to work on a school art project. He left me alone for hours at a time lending weight to the belief that I was to be trusted. When he did pop his head in it was to raise his eyebrows questioningly to which I would smile to which he would nod and wink as if to say I’ll let you get on with it and he did.
Perhaps playing some part in the last hours of someone’s life expands the memory and the heart, creating a space for them that wasn’t there before.
When re counting the morning Mr Punch appeared at the front door of our house in the wee hours, clutching an over night bag with one hand and his over worked heart with the other, dad sticks uncharacteristically to the facts. My dad who taught me ‘Pig Latin’. Who fostered my sweet tooth by declaring ‘Chocy Night’ once a week. Who regularly asked us if we’d heard the one about … (the same one). Who, when in good humour, whistling a favourite ballad, mixed flour with buttermilk and other undisclosed ingredients handed down over the generations to serve us a breakfast mysteriously labelled ‘crawlers’. Who, when in bloodier moods called us names that could only be repeated to a priest for the sole purpose of absolution.
When it comes to the Mr Punch story, it’s told reluctantly. It’s told in brief. It’s told the way one might divulge the sighting of a ghost; careful not to labour the point, for fear of a re visitation. And each time I listen, I try to read between the lines. I’m searching for unspoken truths. For what mattered most that morning. For some indication of the pain and the hope that dragged one introverted man out of his comfort zone and into that of another’s.
As my bedroom was at the front of the house, I must have heard something that morning, if only filtered through a dream.
Maybe what I heard was a dull knocking followed by a sharp intake of breath. I thought I knew about those kinds of breaths. Like the second before I fell mid run at school, skinning my knee and embedding it with bits of Our Lady’s asphalt. Or the second after Marion Allen reached stealthily up to where I was standing, on the adventure playground climbing frame and in one seamless motion, pulled my knickers to my ankles.
Those sudden intakes of breath that reinforce the hard fact of the failing body and the storyteller’s instinct to revive it.
What I remember most about splitting my knee open that day is the onset of fear. Fear of doctors and of hospitals. Fear of being taken apart and put back together differently, or with bits missing. Fear of being buried alive, knowing each nightmare breath could be my last. I didn’t need to explain any of this to dad as his own view of doctors was only slightly removed from that of undertakers. He picked me up from school that day, took me home, christened my wounded knee with a new bottle of Detol and secured a couple of butterfly stitches over the split. I can look at the scars to remind myself I was loved.
Maybe I heard dad’s footsteps fe-fi-fo fuming down the hall in time with his own breathing, gathering momentum as if to ward off the fear that must accompany answering a door knock at such an hour. Maybe he was partly re living that other intrusion, when he’d been woken by laughter stifled into snorts. My best rebel friend had climbed through my bedroom window that time. We sat on my bed, electrified by our daring, midnight feasting for all our pocket money was worth. When we realised the window had jammed shut, we were forced to walk the creaking floor boards and open the whining front door. All in time to dad thundering toward us.
Maybe what I heard was mum wake in fright, interrupting the whisky rhythm of dad’s snoring, scratching back a layer of night with her urgent whispering.
Maybe what I heard that morning was no more than a gold fish bubble of breath breaking as Mr Punch passed by for the last time.
The one way conversation, I’m told, went something like this - Sorry to bother you at such an hour, the thing is … I’m having a heart attack. No butterfly stitches for that one.
I imagine the rest …
Dad coughing that way he does when embarrassed by his own capacity to be moved. Car wheels being propelled over gravel as the Kingswood was reversed out of our drive way. Deep measured breaths. Shallower ones. A decade of neighbourly gestures diffused into a common grounding of numbered days. The sudden, heightened awareness that nobody outlives their story.