Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Cows of My Lives

Life One

The Wall came down in '89. I didn't know much about it. We didn't live near it, but of course I'd seen something of the events on tele. I asked my Dad if it was a good thing, a good thing for Germany. 'No', he said. 'No it isn't. We will be invaded from the east, my son – from the east.' I didn't really understand what he meant then, but looking back, I guess he was right in a way. My dad was a reticent man – even dour; humourless in that typical Teutonic way, you might say. Each morning he'd go off to work in his dark suit, come home with the papers, take off his tie, quietly eat his dinner - always on the table at six - and then retire to his study. He didn't care for radio, television or music – just his papers. He was a floor-walker at a big department store on the Friedrichstrasse, a major shopping street in Berlin. His job was to keep the young shop assistants in line, a job he did well judging from the few times I visited him at his workplace. Years later I asked him if he had liked that job. 'Not much,' he had replied, 'I found it hard to be polite to the customers, to smile at them the way I was supposed to – particularly the tourists. But I liked the young people we had working for us. They were different to my generation, freer somehow. They seemed at pleasure in being in this life. They could chat; make small talk to the customers. And they smiled – they were always smiling. It seemed to lighten things just a little, you know?' I knew what he meant, and I knew why. My Dad's generation carried the guilt. They weren't responsible, but it pervaded everything about them, and they carried it everywhere. It weighed them down.

My dad became a little strange after the Wall came down. I woke up one morning and there was a large chunk of it sitting out there in our tiny back yard – just sitting there. A big piece of the Wall – all brick and grey cement, with prongs of steel reinforcing sticking out. I was gobsmacked. I asked Mum how did it get to be there, but she just shook her head and continued preparing breakfast. When Dad came down I repeated the question, but he just smiled a little, and placed one finger beside his nose, and I was none the wiser. My Dad rarely smiled, so even that jolted me somewhat.

And it all became decidedly odder. One Friday evening he came home carrying two tins of paint – one of black, another of white. I didn't ask, but clearly, Dad was changing. I wasn't sure about this new Dad. These days, when he emerged from his study to go to the toilet, instead of taking his newspaper, he removed the atlas from the bookshelf and took that. Very significant as it turned out, and at weekends he'd leave his thick broadsheets completely to go on long solitary walks. I also knew that, after I had retired for the evening, he and my mother would stay up to all hours, talking and drinking red wine. I am not making this up; I saw the bottles in the morning. Prior to this alcohol had never featured in our household. Something was going on.

After the night of the paint tins Dad was up earlier than normal the next morning, and out the back. When I went out to check on what he was doing, I saw he was painting our chunk of the wall; painting it black and white. I asked the obvious, and in return I received a smile almost radiant. 'Can't you see son, it resembles a cow. I am painting it like a cow, like a Friesian' I couldn't see it myself, and I suspect he'd never even seen a real cow. It seems, though, he even knew the different breeds. But one thing was sure, he was happier than I'd ever known him. I asked what he was going to do with it when he finished. His answer? 'It's what I want to leave behind, son.'


Then I knew – something was really afoot.

Life Two

That 'afoot' was Australia. A few weeks after 'the cow', we took a train for Hamburg, followed by the overnight ferry to Southampton. We then boarded a ship to Australia – not a liner, but an old freighter that took on a few passengers. When I asked my Dad why we didn't fly like everyone else, he replied enigmatically, 'Ever seen me jump, son?' I considered for a while, and then shook my head in the negative. 'It is not natural, my lad, for a man to leave the ground, you see?' I was beginning to see that there was still much I didn't know about my father.

We arrived in Sydney late at night and went to a hotel. The next morning, so bright, so sunny, we walked down to Circular Quay. And there, to one side, was the Opera House; how it shone, how it sparkled. We caught a ferry, and out we proceeded onto the vast harbour, over which dominated the Bridge. I'd seen pictures of it and the Opera House of course, and of kangaroos and koalas. I observed no marsupials that first day, but I saw much that demonstrated that this was a very different place to Berlin. We docked at Manly, and walked up the Corso to a big, old pub – well old for our new country. There we ate the biggest steaks I had seen in my life, and my father actually had a beer. Despite being German, to my knowledge, it was his first. The English was hard going initially, but we made ourselves understood. Dad knew some from the Americans after the war, and from his time dealing with tourists. I learnt it at school, but the way these Aussies spoke it was much different to my teachers – flatter, coarser somehow; but once we picked up the rhythm, we got along okay. Even Mum had a go to the brightly smiling waitress.

After that massive repast we went over the road to the beach. A real beach! It was the first time I had seen one, if you don't count the artificial ones in the parks of our home city. There were people everywhere – of all hues and all tongues. They were in the water, throwing oval balls around, or just walking. There were bronzed Adonises, skimpy bikinis, lifesavers patrolling, withered prunes of old men and women, little kids running around naked - it seemed whole lives could be lived on this beach. Some people were lying on the sand, on big towels, and some of the girls wore no tops. I’d seen bare breasts before in Berlin parks during our short summer, but I didn't know you could see them on real beaches too. I was going to like this country.

The next day we took the train and this gave us an idea of the huge scale of our new homeland. We decamped at Adelaide, and a bus took us up into the hills to the east of the city. Then I found out something that Dad had decided not to tell me, something he kept as a surprise – that there was an Australian branch to our family. We were welcomed by dozens of new relations, and that night they threw us a barbecue, the Aussie way of greeting newcomers. My Dad – my sombre, lumpen father-  well, he got drunk. 'Pissed as a fart,' was how his new family members described him as they toted him off to bed. Drunk on Coopers Ales! He was free, and it was a one off – he never touched the stuff again. But in this country my Dad knew he was free of the past, finally rid of the guilt.

By the time I started school dad had a job much like the old one back on the Friedrichstrasse,   doing something he was good at - keeping a staff in line. He no longer had to wear a suit, but instead lederhosen. He'd come all the way to Australia to wear the national costume for the first time – he liked the irony in that. Through family connections he was working in a beer hall. Not like those vast barns back home, but a smaller one, largely out in the open. You see, from all over this Australia people came to these hills to get a taste of Germany. I found this unusual – it wasn't what I expected, but there you go. Dad even said that here he could be jolly to the customers, even if he couldn't to the staff. I asked if he found it hard being so friendly. 'Not hard at all, son. Nothing seems hard in this country.' And as for Mum, well for the first time in her life she wet to work too – as a pastry-cook in a bakery. My parents were reborn, but what about me - how would I find school?

Well, not too bad, actually. I soon discovered, even with my stilted English, I was well ahead of my new classmates, particularly in maths and science. I was soon correcting the teachers on occasions. A few were a bit snarky, but mostly they took it in their stride as I was finding most Aussies generally did. Back in Germany I wouldn't dare correct a teacher! The other boys were a different matter – they hated me for that. 'Suck' they called me. When they required of me whether I was a Ford man or went for Holden I couldn't answer, as was the case as to whether I barracked for the Port, or favoured the Crows. I knew vaguely the former referred to cars and the latter to the peculiar brand of football they played in these parts. When I opined that soccer was the superior sport, they said that was for 'poofters' and 'wogs', and with that they largely left me alone.

The girls, though – now they were a different matter. They told me they found my accent 'hot'. And there was this one beauty in particular. She wasn't like the others – on about Michael Jackson and Madonna; Neighbours and Home and Away. She got on all right with the other girls, but always seemed slightly apart from them. They called her 'Heifer' for her troubles, but she didn't seem to mind. She reckoned there was no malice in it – and they could be fair bitches to those they suddenly decided to dislike. To me she moved at a slower pace than the other skittish fillies, but not always, as I found out. And she liked me. She liked the way I talked, liked the fact that I was bright; when she wasn't. She liked that I wasn't one of the lads rough-housing around the playground, swearing at the top of their lungs for the benefit of her gender. Her real name was Racquel, after some actress, and right from the get go she seemed to take me under her wing.

I asked her why Heifer? She replied that the other girls figured she resembled a cow way back in the early years, and it stuck. In truth there was something just slightly bovine about her, with those big brown eyes you could get lost in, and her solid chunkiness. But it was her lips, those amazing lips I was so drawn to. These days you'd think they would have been botoxed, and she wore a shiny sheen of a lipstick on them – and also, right from the get go, I knew what I wanted to do with those lips.

Netball was the reason she was allowed to go her own way by those girls. She was by far the school's champion player, and she was respected for that. I went to watch her one Saturday morning. She was astounding; so quick on her feet, so aggressive. The opposition players wouldn't go near her with her bulk and speed, and our school won easily, down to her. When she came off after the game, delightfully hot and sweaty, I told her, that as well as being incredibly sexy, she could sure play that game. 'I know,' she gushed, her eyes so animated, 'I'm going to play for Australia.'

Life Three

She didn't, my beautiful Heifer, she married me instead.

After that school up in the hills, I went to uni down in the city – studied engineering. Racquel stayed, went to work in Mum's bakery. I said Mum's – she was manager by then, so Racquel had a head's up. My lovely girl soon found she was a natural, and before you could blink she was responsible for the cafe side of things. Of course, by this stage, we were more than just friends – we were lovers. Some days off she'd come down to the city to my small room, but mostly I'd spend my weekends back in those hills – and we’d find places. Why in Australia you could even do it outside. She'd love to be on top, and I adored the way her size seemed to envelop me completely. Our lovemaking was languid, luxurious – bliss. But it was those lips, those lips I couldn’t get enough of.

We married as a matter of course, a big lusty Germanic wedding in Dad's beer hall, and honeymooned at Victor Harbour, as you do. Then came the sprogs; two lads. Alex was named after my Dad, is as bright as a button, destined for uni. He'll go far, that one. As for Percy, well he's not so brainy, but he plays footy, the local variety, like a gun – and goes for the Crows to boot. I'll sit and watch a game on the tele with him, but it all seems a bit brutal to me, always smashing into each other. There's no finesse about it like the game I relish on SBS. Why Percy? Well it was Racquel's turn to name number two, and she said he was named after a teacher. There were no Percy's teaching at the school while I was there, and she refuses to give more detail. She has a secret, just like my old man, and I guess I kind of like her having it, so I do not insist- even if there's a story to be had there.

We're in Whyalla now. We didn't mind the place to start with, and the job I've had since uni, in the ship yards, pays well – but we have new plans. I must admit I like getting back to Adelaide for meetings and stuff. There's this one art gallery I go to, not the big one in the arts precinct, but a smaller, private one. You see, it has a cow.

Dad's gone now. He worked the beer hall till he retired, and he didn't last too long after that. He never touched a drop of beer again, but he and Mum became even more partial to reds, always South Australian of course. Mum's in a nursing home and does not know us any more. We're told she hasn't long to go – a month or so. It's sad, I know, but out here in Australia Dad could smile, and she smiled along with him. He died, and she will too, shortly, and if she could, like him, she'd look back on a life now replete.

Back to the art gallery and its bovine - well sitting there contemplating the cow makes me feel close to my father. Like what he painted out back all those years ago, with its huge body, tiny head and limbs, it looks little like the real thing, or maybe a bit more than Dad's did. And it is black and white. It seems there is an Aussie sculptor who has made a good living out of these cows, and they’re everywhere, if you know where to look.  I count my blessing here too – my Heifer, the lads and I ruminate on what my life would have been had we remained in the old country. It's quiet in the courtyard, so in my mind I can finesse our latest plan too.

Like Dad, Mum and myself all those years ago, my family, well we're heading off to a new life overseas too. Just as with that little family back in '93 – only not so far. The writings on the wall for shipbuilding in this state, and I'm getting stale, we need a change. And I'm wanted – they are prepared to wait until Mum passes before they see me take up the job down there. We're off to Tasmania. We will be living in Circular Head in the far north west of the island, Smithton initially. South of it, in a wilderness area called the Tarkine, new mines are opening up and I've snavelled an engineering design job in one of the companies involved. It took a while for the politicians to get their act together over all this down there, and the 'greenies' were none too happy – there being lots of protesting and so on. But the locals want it. They have been doing it tough for jobs for a decade or so. But it’s all up and running, and I see it as part of my job to try and look after the environment down there as much as possible.

And I won't be going to art galleries any more, or at least, not that one in Adelaide. I'm told that around Smithton are the prettiest herds of Freisians you're likely to see in the whole country. Dad will be around me everyday. I'll be continuously reminded of that man who once painted a lump of bricks and mortar into his private vision of a cow, his private vision of a future.

1 comment:

  1. Your best one yet. Your imagination is incredible. I really think you should try and get these published!!!