Thirty years ago, when I was a strapping lad, my friend B, (not his real initial – his real initial is R, but never mind) and I lived for a while in
an old farm house on the Ovens River. In the pickers’ quarters. It was a decrepit old shack with an outdoor dunny, but we loved the romantic nostalgia
of it, spending all day stretching our muscles in work for which we were eminently suited: labouring all day. The pittance we were paid seemed like a
fortune. B embraced the rural lifestyle while I was content to look at the river and the trees from a distance, pretending all was right with the world.
The quiet inertia of the clouds was something I aspired to. Fishing was what B enjoyed. Each afternoon he’d set and inspect the lines he laid along the
bank of the Ovens, a beautiful sweeping river lined with rounded rocks. Once, on our day off, we floated down the river on lilos, but the water
meandered so slowly that in the several hours it took us to drift only a few miles we froze, yet still managed to get fiercely sunburned. Our
main concern was not to drop the beer in the river.
One afternoon, as I sat gazing out the door at the trees, I saw B marching up the furrows of the rough tractor track. Hanging from his sleeve, pulled well down over his hand by the weight of it was, to my city-bred eye, an enormous lobster. Only later I realized it was probably a medium sized crayfish, but as I say I was a suburban boy ignorant of the ways of the land, or in this case the river. It made an amputated casing of his sleeve, red as a stop sign. B kept the crayfish in the bath for several days while he decided what to do with it. It looked decidedly weird, bright as a fire extinguisher, there at the bottom of the bath. Where would we wash? I wondered. Oh, hang on, wash? who cared? Our neighbour, P, another picker, said there was only one thing for it – we would eat it. Horrified, I refused. I cannot describe the distaste I had for this idea, nor the extent of their preparations with the pot, their general gusto. I stood and looked at the crayfish cowering, it seemed, at the end of the bath.
I have written elsewhere of this experience: a scene in a play where no one, not the director, nor the actors, not the audience understood the significance of this scene. What is the significance? I’m not sure I understand it either. I think it speaks to my metropolitan dearth of experience. Sometimes significance arrives well after the event. The delayed cause of meaning. In any event, and to avoid the grisly description B and P called it a disappointing moment, barely a mouthful each. Then the carcass, the prize of which was a pair of rather magnificent bony claws, like ivory bedecked with frightening, calcium thorns, like a bony rose bush. One each. (P, unsatisfied, swallowed his mouthful and went home).
Over time they dried out and ceased to stink. We did not care. There was no one to impress. The inner gristle and tendons snapped so that the claws opened and shut easily. A few years later B’s younger siblings, amazed at the lethal looking appearance of his claw, accidentally broke it during some boisterous play. Ah well. That is the way with delicate things and boisterous play. The same with the tendons in my knees. The way to pass to which all things ultimately come.
However, my claw survived. Against all the odds really for, having moved house umpteen times, kept it on bookshelves, cupboards and so on where it could so easily have fallen or met with boisterous play. It might have shattered any number of times so brittle and fragile is it now. It might have been pulverized long ago. Would I care if it was? No, I am not a hoarder. I suppose my attachment to it has something to do with its inadvertent longevity, its place among the ambiguous relics of an ill-defined history. Each one could have its story if I sat down and concocted it. The irony of the claw is that it sits there, more than merely decorative, a frightening knick-knack that has survived the morbid curiosity of children, encapsulating, like many relics, the spirit of a time and place. A myth robbed by time of its meaning. A conversation piece.
A further irony of its lingering ephemerality is that, thirty years later, B, (or R – he knows his own initial), has recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the third of my friends to be told this. This has no direct bearing on the claw, but has got me thinking about the things I associate with him. The claw means nothing, yet it prevails. I shall feel little when it finally breaks. Or at least I think so. One day we too will fall off the shelf and those who have kept us, unthinkingly, all these years, will sweep up the dust and invest some other relic, talisman, icon with what we once meant to them – not us at all – perhaps a photograph, a letter, a ceramic pot, something by which to wrongly remember us. To have us linger in imperfect memory.
Mark O’Flynn's poetry collections include The Too Bright Sun (1996), The Good Oil (2000), What Can Be Proven (2007), Untested Cures (2011), The Soup’s Song (2015), and Shared Breath (2017). His short stories and reviews have appeared in a wide range of journals and magazines, both in Australia and overseas. His novel, Grassdogs, was the Varuna Manuscript Award and was published in 2006 by Harper Collins. It was followed by The Forgotten World, (2013). A collection of short stories, White Light, was also published later that year. He has also published a memoir, False Start, (2013). His recent novel, The Last Days of Ava Langdon, (UQP, 2016) was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, as well as winning the Voss Literary Award, 2017. Mark lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW.