Memories of a Philosopher
Sid often savoured life retrospectively.
‘Without memories’ he would say when he was old enough to philosophise, ‘life wouldn’t make much sense.’
He was born during wartime but didn’t realise until he became a philosopher that starting life during a war can alter things. The earliest, fragmented memories were important – incidents before he started school – but not his birth. Because he couldn’t remember his birth he reasoned that this was really part of his parents’ lives.
One of Sid’s earliest memories was the taste of sherbet when his dad shouted him at the corner shop, a haven of spicy smells, rows of tins and huge jars, and the scales. He always wanted to play with the scales’ round weights.
Although he had eagerly anticipated school, and despite the attention of his big sisters, Sid was scared on his first day. The teacher and her large table at the front of the class. He remembered that. She was kind, but they had a man later. Men were stricter. Back then the world didn’t exist beyond the area between home and school.
The buzz or flutter of insects had lured his attention from the blackboard on warm days, and the distant echoes of the bottle-oh and his horse had stirred a yearning to be off somewhere, anywhere. The teacher’s torpid drone couldn’t compete with the bottle-oh’s cry, and Sid hadn’t understood then how grown-ups can feel trapped, too, hadn’t understood that perhaps both he and the chalky-fingered man with brilliantined hair heard the same sirens calling from faraway places.
Sid knew the black snake’s sting. When he was strapped he enjoyed the warmth of peer approval, but not the searing numbness across his palms. He would grin through the camaraderie, swaggering back to his seat hoping Daphne Jones admired his boldness. The iron desk supports offered cold relief.
Sid recalled lunchtimes of cheese and jam sandwiches wrapped in newspaper which he read sprawling in the long grass bordering the asphalt playground, not realising that this newsprint would enable him to laughingly disdain the softies of the future. The boys’ jokes and rough language made the girls squeal with disgust, both affected and real. Sid always laughed loudly back in the girls’ direction from the comforting knot of mateship.
Football was another early memory.
‘D’you remember when Dad took you to watch the Magpies that first time when you were little?’ his mum would repeat like a mantra when she was getting old. Sid always claimed to remember but was uncertain whether he fully remembered or had constructed the missing bits from what he had heard and come to know.
Looking up at men yelling in the rain was an uncertain image, and the excitement on his father’s face. His dad had hoisted him onto his shoulders when Sid complained of aching legs. The boy was overseer of a forest of stetsons. After he became too heavy – his dad wasn’t strong – Sid had fossicked among the rubbish on the damp, trampled terraces where crushed grass combined with the aroma of beer and tobacco wafting on the wind. His dad didn’t notice until the match was over and he made Sid throw his collection away.
When he was old enough Victoria Park became his favourite place in winter. The Coventrys were his heroes. One balding, and one with thick hair, yet brothers. One giant in the ruck winning the Brownlow, and the other kicking the goals. All the Magpies were like brothers in those days, and their supporters taunted intruders from the wrong side of the world, Richmond and South Melbourne, and closer to home, Fitzroy. Those Fitzroy supporters were the real enemy. Newer teams like Footscray, Hawthorn, and North were barely worthy of scorn.
Holidays were weeks of carefree fun with little money to spend, weeks that seemed to last forever. When the light began to dim, his mum would call for the kindling to be split. He built a billycart but couldn’t find a decent hill in that flat, working-class area of cheap land. Billycart wheels were valuable currency among his mates. If only they had had a hill. Sid remembered pinching fruit from Old Kelleher’s orchard before escaping through a gap in his fence. Then Kelleher got a dog. Sid would smile to himself later in life, and mutter: ‘Kelleher’s flamin’ dog.’
He remembered early accidents but not the actual pain, just the certainty of it. He had borrowed another kid’s bike. The rubber on the pedals had worn away, and when Sid had stood on the steel cylinders for more speed he had slipped. He would mimic the agony between his legs from coming down on the crossbar by sucking in his cheeks a generation later when he told his own laughing children. He had careered into a parked car, an Essex.
Sid and his mates discussed the mystery of girls, and fought the boys from the Catholic school. The toughest of them was to be his best man. He died at Changi and was revered for the rest of Sid’s life.
Sid shared a sleepout with his brothers. They tried to ban their sisters but weren’t allowed to. ‘Undemocratic,’ said Mum who would leave Dad to mind the roast while she went to church. Sid’s dad wouldn’t go near ‘Them God wallahs,’ but would muck around in the garden while Sid’s sisters shelled peas over the colander. Pinching peas was a ritual; fresh-tasting, but sometimes a dried one to spit out at each other.
Sid could always picture his mum at the wood stove in her floral, wraparound pinny. ‘Come on, you lot’ was her favourite saying but she had dozens of others. Sid used these sayings unconsciously when talking to his own children later.
Different dogs chased family cats through the narrow streets of his reminiscences. He remembered most of their names. Sweetie was the pup the ice-cart squashed. His sister was sick but the iceman never said much. There were rabbits and chooks and white mice, all with names.
Sid sold Heralds. A tram stop was his regular position. He could leap on, sell three or four papers, and jump off by the time a tram had jerked across the intersection. Pennies made a comforting, weighty feeling in his pocket. Sid would lightly lift his pocketful of pennies and then allow them to chunk back against his thigh.
Posh people off for a night out in the city stirred his envy, but his dad would say: ‘Don’t wish your life away, son.’ Sid bought a new coat and flat cap after saving for months. This is living, he thought, adjusting the cap’s angle in the hall mirror.
Sid would remark later that it was a funny thing but he couldn’t actually remember people calling The Depression by that name at the time. Longing to be a man so he could get on with the business of living meant that leaving school was an event worth celebrating. His first job was in a boot factory but he was shocked when he lost it. ‘From making boots to getting the boot,’ was his description. There were few other jobs during those meagre times but he was at that age when hardship can be shrugged off.
Sid could never forget his first girlfriend, and his anxiety when he attempted to talk to her. If a bridge had been erected over the Yarra as high as the new one all Sydney was forever skiting about he would have dived from that with less anxiety. She was the only person with the power to make him swallow, dry-mouthed, whenever he saw her coming.
Her eyes. When she looked his way it was like the time the goal-scoring Coventry had to kick truly after the bell to win the game. Exciting and painful at the same time. He couldn’t watch and yet wouldn’t have missed it for a free banquet of king prawns. So Sid made a pact with himself, a pact that was life’s biggest challenge until then. He set himself to ask her to the pictures.
She said: ‘Yes.’
He had been foolish with success.
Sid remembered none of the film but she could years later.
Their wedding was organized in a hurry even though they had known each other for a long time. There was nothing improper about it. Sid was off to war.
‘What! The flamin’ jungle!’ his dad said when he learned where Sid was. The war had catapulted his boys in all directions, and he had started his coughing which always made everybody hold their breath until he stopped. They said his health was only slightly impaired by the small amount of gas he ingested in France but the cough had grown worse.
His dad’s death emptied Sid. He was still in the jungle and had no chance to attend the funeral. His private weeping behind the canteen contrasted with the dry-eyed pain and cursing when he had come off his bike and dented the Essex not so many years earlier. He blew his nose hard on his shirt tail and thought about the days when his old man had been crook. ‘All that bloody coughing,’ he would say over a beer years after.
For a while Sid thought he hated the Japs but he left the war mostly behind him when it was over, like a snake shedding its old skin. Soon the images faded to a haze of mud, fuzzy-wuzzy angels, leeches, good mates, and malaria.
He developed a knack of recalling the old man and their shared good times whenever he needed to. The days when they had teased Mum. They once planted her copper stick in the fowl run and topped it with her church hat. She was wild, but laughed later. During the post-war years when Sid was working for the council he might catch himself smiling alone, then he would plan something happy with his children. Laughter was important, comparable with respect, or loyalty, or the Magpies never disgracing themselves at home.
Sid loved his wife but they fought. There seemed to be a fundamental difference in their personalities. He sometimes wondered if this was caused by the war years, or perhaps simply because he was a man and she was a woman.
Their children’s existence always reminded them that the squabbling wasn’t worth it. She would brew him a strong cup of tea and he would allow it to cool with his temper while he found some little job that needed attending to. He had difficulty saying sorry. Once he felt so bad after an argument that he had bought her a new sewing machine. She was grateful, and they had all gorged on her baking spree that weekend, but Sid never knew the machine wasn’t the model she had wanted.
They lost a son. It was after the Queen’s visit when they had stood in the crowd near the airport. ‘Whizzed past in a bloody Land Rover so fast we only caught a glimpse of His Lordship waving and grinning,’ he told his mates at work. The kids had complained.
Their son had been healthy but his illness perforated their lives utterly. The boy’s life was over with bewildering swiftness. Friends cued them with cliches about their other two children. Then Sid’s brother-in-law was killed in an accident. Someone told them bad luck always comes in threes, and when Sid’s suffering wife began to dread the family’s future he angrily pointed out that fools have a saying for every occasion. Their luck changed when another son was born late in the marriage.
Sid’s mum didn’t die until she was nearing Biblical age. The eldest children were growing up by then. Nan had shared their cramped house and wrote unvarying letters to her daughters who had long since married and moved interstate.
‘But we’re poverty-stricken,’ Sid’s son had complained when it was suggested that his grandmother come to live with them. Sid said that poverty was a discomfort the boy’s generation would never suffer from, nor be able to understand.
‘No mother of mine’s going to rot in a bloody home,’ he had said.
‘Moses himself couldn’t have laid the law down more impressively,’ his wife commented, and told Sid not to swear in front of the children, as she had quietly arranged for his mother to move in.
Sometimes Sid had taken his sons to see the Magpies play but they were more interested in other things. He had bought their little striped jumpers as soon as they were old enough but somehow it wasn’t the same as when he had been a boy.
Sid thought his son-in-law was gormless, but he made excuses for his youth. His children were now adults. Then his elder boy won a free trip to Viet Nam. They worried.
‘Cooks don’t have much more than pastry to dodge,’ the conscript reassured them. His confidence reminded Sid of the day when he had marched off to war himself. Same behaviour.
When the man returned the only wound he seemed to have received was from a bar girl in Saigon. Sid told him never to let his mother know, and felt slightly guilty for being so proud. His son recovered. He had also changed. No more wet remarks like ‘poverty-stricken’.
Sid still enjoyed a few drinks with his old mates – those who had survived – during what he considered his middle years. His hair was the colour of their old dog’s whiskers, and he sometimes suffered from a fever. He praised the staff of the Repatriation Hospital but the shakes were gradually eroding his energy.
He and his wife rarely went out together any more but shared a delight in their grandchildren. Sid conceded that their daughter and the gormless one – who didn’t seem so bad now – were certainly fertile. Sid’s younger son, the Viet Nam veteran, still lived at home, preferring his own silent company. Sid and his wife worried about him when he teamed up with his former army pals and binged for days, but there was nothing they could do about his remote moods.
Sid clashed with his younger son and became even more annoyed with himself afterwards. The boy accused him of being old.
‘There’s not much I can do about it, is there?’ Sid retorted. ‘You don’t have much bloody choice, you know.’ It was a long time since the Magpies had earned the big prize.
His wife had what Sid referred to as ‘women’s operations’, and she became distant, wounding him by harping about wasted opportunities. His love for her found new nourishment. Seeing her so withdrawn made him think about all their days together. He also thought how quickly the world was changing, and he was lonely without her closeness. After this bad period their union rallied like a sick plant responding to special care.
On their fortieth anniversary they made love again. Sid felt the way he had felt before sailing north, or even earlier, when he had leapt onto trams crying: ‘Herald?’ The anniversary party wasn’t held on the exact date. It was on the nearest Saturday night, and their children gave extravagant gifts. The elder son looked well. He had brought a new girlfriend, and his mother crossed her fingers when she helped Sid blow out candles, snatching glances at the quiet young woman. Even the grandchildren had wrapped special presents they had made themselves. Sid frowned, gulping his beer and joking while his wife dabbed with her hanky. The quiet young woman looked at Sid, seemed to look beyond his attempted mask.
He had stopped driving because of his health. They hadn’t owned a car until Sid was well into his thirties, and his wife had never learned. He walked slowly to the TAB and tried the quadrella, dreaming about presenting the winnings to his children who didn’t need it, and hoping to spot somebody he knew. Then he would linger to show off about their granddaughter’s school report, or their son’s new young lady.
When his wife fell dead Sid felt old. At the cemetery he would touch the cold stone, reading and rereading the words. Daphne Mildred, dearly beloved wife… Sid began putting gilt frames around his memories.
His daughter called around regularly when the younger boy moved out. Sid’s son-in-law was kind, too, causing Sid regret for even the good-natured jibes he had made years earlier.
The Magpies nearly made it. They went close but weren’t quite good enough. An improved year had seen Sid attempt to repel the despair which had been wearing him down, and he had remembered faces from long ago when he stood on the terraces once more at the old football ground.
His daughter and her sensible sister-in-law found Sid dead in bed. He looked peaceful. They told everyone this until they grew tired of hearing their own words.
He would have said, philosophically, that his death had no meaning to him. It was really part of his children’s lives, and those whose lives would follow. They would remember his death. It would join their other memories, just another of all the remembered loves and hurts and smiles and tears, without which, life wouldn’t make any sense.