September 2005

Arts & Letters

Normie’s father

By Roger McDonald

The dominating men of Normie Powell’s childhood lived on winding dirt roads following the Trout River upstream to its source. Each was a landowner with acres given over to Merino sheep, animals grazed to the brink of starvation while shedding spun gold into bank accounts. The 1960s remained good years after the boom of the fifties. It seemed the prosperous times would never end for the midas misers of the Trout. The strong families were Mitchells and Corkers, with Rod Mitchell, son of Wallace and Edie, a controlling influence over a much younger brother, Tim. In the dreamy distance the Snowy Mountains showed a dusting of snow into summer. Mitchell flocks turned a profit enabling them to take sea voyages to the old country and Rod, a bachelor, to drive a two-seater Jag.

Weatherboard churches stood on precipitous rocky ridges running down to the Trout. Ministers drove out from Trout Junction in rattly cars on allotted Sundays. Normie Powell, for the rest of his life, had reason to remember the buildings leaning this way or that, depending on their protection from thumping winds. Nearby were graveyards arranged by faith and separated by wire fences collecting windblown grass. Inside the churches were shed snakeskins, mud-nesting swallows and dead blowflies, bats, mice and erupted lizard carcasses, requiring working bees with straw brooms and buckets of hot water and cakes of carbolic soap to clean out the gunk. Silence and nature ruled in the weeks between services and Normie Powell, sitting in a pew while his father preached, mostly thought about that – how something ruled beyond the rule talked about, and didn’t need words.

Vince Powell, Normie’s father, was a naval rating in the war, then a chemistry teacher in country high schools, now a muscular Christian with something to prove who loaded hay and drove trucks helping out. A favourite sermon was “What Makes a Man?” The answer was all too much hard work involving ideas about three in one and bending your back to the blows of misfortune.

Trout Junction was where Reverend Powell grew up, son of storekeepers. It embarrassed Normie the way his father swaggered with the blokes, as he loudly named them, biting the caps from beer bottles with his teeth. That his father would take only approximately half a glass of beer or a small cut-glass goblet of sherry never escaped Normie’s absorbing gaze.

The boy did not want to see his father drunk but thought you didn’t nibble at fire, you took the burn – something Normie wished his father had done when he was in the war, before he went from one thing to another. On his destroyer there’d been just one shot fired before the armistice, over the bows of a torpedo boat, off Ambon.

Reverend Powell talked of mercy but the men he visited with Normie had an unforgiving streak. They never saw mercy required of themselves while seeking contrition from others. Normie cowed under the humorous cuff of Wallace Mitchell’s palm when he called him useless in the hayfield when Normie came to help. Those Upper Trout graziers seemed the ultimate representatives of a truth that was force. So uppermost were they in the nation’s ideal of itself that they supplied members of parliament from their uncles and cousins, while the hardest heroes in two wars came from their number.

Not that Normie really liked them, but he measured himself against them. Mitchells were a moral absolute and Normie believed by comparison his father via the Christ message offered nothing to match. The Mitchells’ erosion gullies displayed the ruthlessness of a struggle for dominance. Ringbarked trees were reminders, each a battle post. Serrated tussock thrived where nutritional grasses failed, the draped tresses of that noxious weed like exploded mattress ticking on the wrecked slopes. The weed had an effect – Merinos drove harder. Poor feed was good for fine wool sheep. The harder they grazed the finer the wool became, as Rod Mitchell claimed in his highest excitements, in a conundrum explaining the desolation and wealth of the land.

Scalded as the steep hills were, they had bleak beauty. Bordered by cold forests of eucalypt extending from peaks rarely trod, the country marched away into folds of blue-smoked haze, east to the distant sea, west to the Snowies. The Mitchells despised the wilder reaches of timber as cattle runs and barely saw them against the needs of fencing, dingo trapping, rabbit control and soil erosion repairs. It was on the bare sheep hills and down on the river flats they found beauty most, in irrigated paddocks given over to lucerne, deep-rooted and hardy, in drought years gleaming jade against the shallow rapids.

During haymaking Normie rode with his father from before daylight until after dark, spiralling paddocks while boys on casual rates of pay hurled rectangular bales onto the flat top. Normie would have to say that he and Tim Mitchell were not so much friends as observers of each other’s pitifulness.

Jenny Powell, Normie’s mother, had never wanted to be a vicar’s wife but once loved a sailor in a roll-necked sweater and said she would voyage with him anywhere. Lately when important letters arrived she knew there were limits. Vince hardly listened and went on tearing up mail after scanning its contents. It was a lucky day when he came down from the post office verandah to find a bin smouldering and already alight. To see a letter flaring and turning to ash worked like a headache powder. Silently he thanked Tub Maguire, the figure in the black overcoat who kept the town’s rubbish alight with crafty cigarette butts and furtively cupped matches.

Vince walked under sticky low peppercorns remembered from his youth. Down side-streets plane trees reached across the white dust of the road, almost touching overhead. Roses thrived in dry gardens watered by tea grounds and washing-up slops. Then St Aidan’s came into view, its squared blue granite belltower copied from one in East Anglia. The forecourt of St Aidan’s enraptured Vince Powell at the age of five, a pattern of herringbone bricks. His life story was foretold there. When he wrote his minister’s memoirs it would be those old convict bricks with their crumbled edges and stubborn dry remnants of rosemary that would get the credit for swaying him. Only God knew why.

If he said God lived in the stones and late after turning off lights and locking doors fell to his knees and prayed on them, who would know?

He considered the thought and walked on. All this, so far, was confessed to a not quite comprehending Jenny.

Around a corner Tub Maguire lurched from the shadows, the tails of his overcoat flapping.

“If only two days was the same,” the metho drinker slurred, tipping a hat brim chewed by mice.

“Too right Tub,” said the man of the cloth, hearing the rattle of matches as Tub hobbled away.

Up near the stone quarry a fire burned, harmless in winter, eating dry underbrush in a jaggedy line. It was Tub’s signature.

In the minister’s fraternal of the Snowies it was said that Anglican clergy did not have a hard road to the pulpit. Rather too easy it was for them to slip on the gaudy vestments and gesture towards the choir stalls for a bit of tra-la-la. Presbyterians did higher degrees in New Testament Greek, and Cattle Ticks had the celibacy row to hoe, but after the navy Vince Powell had been high-school teacher one year, preacher the next. QED they’d said in the science staff room at Queanbeyan High – but ask Vince and he might tell you differently if only he could find the words to describe his appetite for change.

Back during teaching he almost exploded test-tubes in thought, watching sulphur and silicone bubble. There was a part of him convinced despite physical laws that reality was a deception requiring less than acid, heat or sugars to melt the division. There was no division, there was never a void beyond, he insisted, but a wordless elevated harmony a step across from matter. This was Vince’s innermost syllabus, which he protected from his pupils in the state system but wanted to teach someone. The ring around the atom: that was where Vince headed when the time came – surrendering his superannuation and sure climb up the education department ladder, pinning the shy gold cross of the bush padre to his shirt collar and spinning with excitement.

Sceptics and hardbitten refusers had his understanding more than fellow clergy who branded him rather too sporty, therefore thick, as he settled into the outdoor Christian role: it was the good bloke in him – playing second-row district rugby, a hard and accurate tackler. All manner of men were his. That was the metaphor lived.

Scoring a try Vince dived with horizontal madness, a real goer in his flashbulbed moment, ploughing into the churned earth under the goalposts with his arms held up until the very last moment when he slammed the ball down. Every time he got up he was glad to be alive, and unwillingly, oh so diffidently, saw a love of the game awakening in Normie. Action led youngsters and a few old mates to follow but to what end when the game was over? Kids couldn’t live by activated metaphor and nor finally could Vince.

Vince’s sermons, crafted and filed on index cards, praised by Jen as more than just fine, now felt wooden. It was why Vince had lately abandoned sermons and improvised from a book of Psalm interpretations. It was certainly a gain. Heads snapped from slumber and ecstasy glowed in men’s faces, as well as more or less as usual in women’s, when Vince hit a new note. The choir doubled in number and Saturday Evensong became a haven of swaying, trilling chanters, Rod Mitchell’s the finest basso profundo among them. People came from distant towns to experience the rumour. The triumph was Rod Mitchell bringing a bunch of equally hardbitten blokes from the Upper Trout and three from as far away as Moss Vale.

During services Normie and Tim Mitchell slipped away, took a Dally Messenger across to the oval and played force ’em backs with high punts until darkness fell and each claimed a win and sometimes wrestled in the mud to prove it.

Vince with 50 pounds’ cash went to Corker & Corker. He paid Careful Bob Corker, the Trout Junction stock agent, six months’ rental on the old Buffalo Hall, a 1920s fibrolite job lying empty. There in a khaki shirt with the sleeves torn out and wearing football shorts and sandshoes without socks he set up trestle tables and accepted donations of food, helping the poor who joined the ranks of his acolytes calling him the best good bloke ever.

This was all very well and interested the bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, who came to enquire why his letters lately drew blanks. Allowance was made for the phase in any man’s life when the scriptures needed living out. They all went through it, except never as profound – said the bishop smiling oil over his athletic colleague’s lapse of decorum. Contingency plans were made for the next move for an errant padre – sideslip Vince into the practical side of the Anglican show, second him to a property management working party for example?

The part of Vince’s mind presiding over his being was a relentless taskmaster. He began talking more about suffering. About being nailed, so to speak, to the wood.

“So to speak?” asked Jenny, who felt something invading from where it shouldn’t, right into their lives from the spiritual plane. Cooling from Vince’s enthusiasms she took sides with parishioners who felt their leader was ignoring them after years of faithful attendance and social contentment as stalwarts. They were the ones who put money into the collection plate after all and maintained the paintwork and churchyard rose beds.

Garbage fires burned where Tub Maguire and his relations lived in tin humpies. Any boil or infected cut experienced by Normie was traceable, according to Jenny, to the times Normie rode with his father into the Maguires’ camp. The truth was that most of those times Normie stayed in the car, holding germ-free to the door handle while Abo kids jumped on the running board, streaking their noses on the window glass, looking in while his father conducted the Gum Tree Sunday School which seemed just for girls. It was not tremendously Christian of Normie’s mother to knock the black people but a cold congealed feeling in Normie’s stomach came from her and there was no breaking out of a mother’s way of being. The boys Normie’s age had left school, and though he’d played cowboys and Indians with them when they were younger and dragged billy carts in the dirt, they were strangers now who lowered their eyes whenever they met and greeted each other with a low howdy.

At first Normie thought his father didn’t let on he stayed in the car so that Normie wouldn’t look hostile, but then it seemed that his father looked to Normie to keep quiet about Pamela Slim, the woman everyone called The Crow. Vince gave her lifts back to her cottage during which he and Pamela sat side by side hardly speaking, only it was a game, something was going on. Normie saw Mrs Slim reach over and touch his father’s hand; saw his father’s fingers grip hers and hang on. He saw the light in her eye when she turned back and said thank you, as she closed the door where they dropped her.

“What’s eating you?” his father said as they drove off.


Now here is Vince turning out for rugby practice on the shortest day of the year. His steady brilliance in the scrum and sudden powerful passes from the forwards way out to the winger mark him the best. The boys, Normie and Tim, are with him in their striped, shrunken, hand-me-down jerseys and aluminium-cleated boots which they love to crackle on the concrete apron of the grandstand after changing. Here is their lanky coach, Kingsley Colts, more willing than the broad run of men to do his bit. Now Colts is leading them in slow-motion circles of the oval under the bare branches of elm. They say he’s only got one lung but can equal the mile of John Landy. A couple of feeble lights press against the dusk.

All week Normie has blocked his father’s attempts at pleasantry. Well, put that to use in footy practice, Vince declares. With a scowl Normie takes him up on the Tuesday. When the forwards have done with the scrum machine and the backs are finished at calisthenics, Colts calls for the scratch game to begin, seven a side.

Normie is a nimble player who doesn’t like getting hurt. This evening he’s wearing an armour of defiance though, and might do anything. Tim Mitchell joins him in the spirit of opposition and the two make spearhead attacks every time Vince gets possession. Away the boys go getting nowhere, Vince flinging them off like fleas from a dog’s back. They attack him on either side but shepherding, Colts declares it, whistling them back. The rules Colts applies amuse a couple of visiting players, big happy men, but stupid, one a cousin of the Mitchells from up Booroowa way, the other a New Zealander on a study tour of impact studs. The moment comes when the boys stand back panting and what they merely attempted is resolved. Harvey and Maltman are the names of the vengeful comedians. They capture Vince still powering in their arms and, oblivious to the spectre of Colts calling a halt, restrain Vince like a slippery bean and rotate him arse-over and bring him down head-first breaking his neck.

Not a twitch, nor a stab of pain did Vince Powell feel after his body settled around him. A last cockatoo squawked in the trees. He was to speak of it later, describing a woozy feeling ushering in the life sentence. A beetle crawled in his ear and he couldn’t scratch it. Just for that moment the whole field ran on and left him alone contemplating the first star. “Don’t move him,” somebody shouted after the pack wheeled and returned, standing over him.

“Can’t you walk?” an idiot asked.

Something broke in his son pushing through – “It’s me, Dad, Normie. I’m here, I’m the one!”

The one what, it was interesting to wonder, as Normie didn’t know which one himself unless he meant the one who loved his father more than words could say, better, realer than the son of God who wasn’t there for this, otherwise it would not have happened.

Colts restrained his anger at the two attacking players. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” was already being muttered in the back line, where Harvey and Maltman lingered, kicking the turf with appalling unease. It was the game Kiwis played in heaven and sometimes the worst knock defined its brilliance.

Young Dr Macintosh came roaring through the muddy gates of the oval in his Mini Minor, the first in the town. There were those who said Mac couldn’t do enough and those who said he never did anything much. Answering no questions Mac unlaced Vince’s boots, pinched his toes, examined his eyeballs with a pencil torch, arranged a blanket over him and placed a hand on his brow until the lights of the ambulance appeared. Next day Mac travelled with Vince by plane from Cooma getting him seen by the best available at Royal North Shore, a brilliant man whose secret was he walked the hard mile beside the stretchers of the disabled and about a year or 18 months later farewelled quads from rehab into a cessation of progress.

Somewhere in the scriptures the sick were told to take up their beds and walk. The halt and the lame to throw away their sticks. Jesus of Galilee walked upon water. There by the side of the road he tended the injured, the defiled, and from a few loaves and fishes fed the five hundred. A theology was founded on the idea of burdens being removed; it spread through history and spoke of itself 1,963 years later in Vince Powell’s bedsores, in his problems with ventilators and nights of neglect when nobody checked his terrors.

Home on the Trout they make an interesting pair: Vince Powell and Tub Maguire, the paralysed and the paralytic. Hardly a day passes without Tub nosing through the shrubbery along the back wall of the district hospital and fooling the nurses with birdcalls and imitations of Doc Macintosh’s nasal orders. Swift as a stinko rat kicking the chocks from under the wheels of Vince’s chair Tub pulls him out of the place and goes racing, head lowered and boot-soles scraping. They drop down the hill into town at unsafe speed. One day rattling over the forecourt of the church Vince is jolted clear of the seat and tumbles uselessly on the bricks, his head twisted sideways and his nose aligned with the cracks where weeds and ant-mounds flourish. Another day he chokes in the coils of smoke that rise from Tub’s impetuous fires.

On a scorching day during a phase of Vince’s miraculously extended existence the two men take to the river. Normie fishing under the ribbon gums on the opposite bank sees them, the ugly wooden chair tilted on the grass and what Normie takes to be an apparition rising from the bank. What the Jesus fuck?! It is Tub holding the wasted Vincent Powell of football fame in his drunken arms with the intention Normie is absolutely certain of drowning him. They slither the gravel bend of the Trout and sink into a deep clear pool laughing. Drunkenly Tub dunks his burden, swearing, and Normie with cold certainty wills his father to die. It would be better.

But Tub is washing Vince, getting the shit off him, and that is all it is. Would that Normie knew what it meant. The thought disgusts him with the intimacies involved, the hairy bumcrack flashing and the pink dangling balls of the athlete so bloody pointless.

Normie packs his fishing gear before he is seen. There comes a flailing, gasping sound and he turns to see his father swimming – spouting water like a fountain and restored to his sporting life.

Normie watches for a long while taking it in. Too bloody late, old man. Then he gathers his rods and goes. Not yet, nor for a long time yet, is he aware of the ghost of happiness inhabiting him.

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