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The Reasons I Won't Be Comingby Elliot Perlman
I WAS ONLY IN A CHILDISH WAY CONNECTED TO THE ESTABLISHED ORDER Madeline, my wife, never used to wear a watch. She does now, I am told. For a long time, in a very inexact way, I had kept time for her. There was the time before we were married and the time after. There was the time before I was hospitalized and the time after. There was the time she needed me and the time after. And there is now.
I am not well and I make no bones about it. It is largely a psychological disorder, but only the most obvious of its manifestations have ever led me to hospital. These flights of fancy, as Madeline initially wished them to be known, are actually psychotic episodes. But these are just its most extreme symptoms. It is more than the sum of these. It is there all the time and no one knows what it is, a disease so new, so rare, that they haven’t developed a classification for it. They had one briefly but the condition mutated beyond human understanding, beyond recognition. My work is said to compound the malady. I am, by profession, a poet.
When I cry I suck on my front teeth and purse my lips involuntarily as though in anticipation of an onslaught of kisses. I never realized that I did this, never even suspected it. It is a mannerism just short of a tick and it belongs to me. There is a rhythm to it and I rock slightly in time with the pursing of my lips. I do this all in time. This rhythm is a matter of instinct with me. I am a poet.
How does that happen? In spite of everything, how does one become a poet? The term has become derogatory. How did that happen? It all happened before Madeline’s father died. These days people assume, if ever they give it any thought, that poets must be inept, glassy-eyed people who, tyrannized by their own private internal anarchy, ramblingly conjure instant affect. But that, of course, is a stereotype. And it all starts way before this.
You are born. You remember nothing of it but get told at selected intervals that yours was a traumatic birth. The nature of the trauma does not really matter. What matters is that you are told about it at an early age. It quickly assumes a tremendous significance in your own private mythology. You visualize it in gray or sepia as a scene from a prewar newsreel. As you grow up you use it to explain otherwise inexplicable and unjust events. It is why you cannot perform certain tasks as well as other people, or at all. It is why your mother was this or that way with you.
You read, not just well, but powerfully.
You do just well enough at school for your distraction from what other people are interested in to be encouraged once, briefly, by a sympathetic teacher who, by the time you timorously graduate, has left the school and cannot be reached.
You read more.
You get a clerical job and study literature and history or philosophy, classics or art history at night. At work you meet an attractive young woman from the country. You flatter her. She flatters you. You write a poem about her. You tell her it is your first but it is not. It is actually just the first poem you have ever shown anyone. She is your first, the first to see it. But the poem is not your first. The others, the earlier ones, were naïve, derivative and masterfully bad. This one, too, is bad, but you show it to her because otherwise, without it, in its absence, you are a clerk. It works and you are a poet.
You spend time together. You take each other to art galleries and museums. You teach her and then recite in unison the opening to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky.
You get promoted. There are more art galleries. She gets promoted. There are more museums. You drink strong coffee, almost professionally, in the inner city area. She encourages you to submit the poem about her for publication. She tells you she has never met anyone who wrote poetry. You suspect that it is just that she has never met anyone who admitted it. You think everyone writes poetry. The poem about her is published. You share a kind of delight.
You meet other people who have published poetry. You take her to their poetry readings. The two of you drink coffee with them after their readings. You get promoted again. She knits you a jumper. You meet her parents during a weekend at their cattle farm in the country. One still night you tell her about your traumatic birth. You get married.
You are married. She gets promoted. You write a volume containing many poems. Two of them are published. She gets promoted. There are more museums. She gets pregnant. You write some poems about it. She takes maternity leave but not before being promoted again. A child is born. In many senses he is yours. Andy. You write Poems for Andy.
Andy grows to learn Christmas carols, and when he is old enough to sing them, you change the lyrics outrageously. You change their meaning. You take away their meaning. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny name. It is a game. It delights him. It is the last time you remember delighting him. She gets promoted.
You take him to museums. You write a poem about museums, about taking your son to museums, about the ways in which museums record time. You used to go there with your wife. Later she sends you there with her son. He continues growing. “What are you feeding him?” colleagues ask at work Christmas parties. Too big for your knee, you recite to him across a room: Twinkle twinkle little bat! How I wonder what you’re at! Up above the world you fly, Like a tea tray in the sky. Too big for Lewis Carroll, there is so little in him that resembles you. Your parents die. It affects you more than certain acquaintances think it should. She gets promoted.
Your son grows. Up, up and away! He plays different games. He grows more like his mother, at least more like her than like you. They share a certain closeness you attribute to the famed bond between mothers and sons and also to your traumatic birth. She tells you she does not want any more children. You write a poem about this. It is published in Meanjin. It is anthologized. The anthology becomes a prescribed text for secondary students. Of the six years your son spends at secondary school, fifty minutes are devoted to poetry. The anthology is for a moment in your son’s hands. One book between two. It is an austerity measure. He does not see you waiting in the table of contents. They read Kipling. At work you are made redundant. Still not old, you read ever more. She gets promoted.
Your wife’s father dies and bequeaths her the farm. She resigns with a large payout. Your son leaves home. You and she return to her roots to run a cattle farm. She tells you it might be good for you. You are so pleased to hear that she wants it to be good for you that you do not question the move. You know nothing about farming or cattle but you can write poetry anywhere, if indeed you can write it at all. You picture a new rural phase with rural themes. Wordsworth meets Ted Hughes and Les Murray. You aim to keep in touch with the literary community through the membership of committees. You plan to be a literary agitator. You will write angry but witty pieces denouncing government funding cuts to the Arts. “Your Tiny Handout Is Frozen.”
The year that Madeline and I moved to Mansfield was the year that Andy and one of his friends bought a four-wheel drive to take around Australia. He was by then already a big and practical young man, good with his hands. All the girls liked him. He had not wanted to go on to university. He did not have any plans for the year after the four-wheel-drive trip. He told me this quietly as we shared a cup of tea on the verandah the day he drove up to Mansfield to say good-bye. It was, I thought, a defining moment in his development, and it occurred to me that it should have been acknowledged with some sort of going-away party. But we were new to the area and, other than the people Madeline knew from her youth, we did not know anyone to invite. He would have hated the idea anyway. He spoke quietly in a low, soothing, anxiety-free voice. He did not read. I thought that maybe he would when he got older. He could do everything else. He had declined several offers to play a number of sports at a professional level. Madeline and I were so proud of him, so proud of his balance. I suspect that he already thought I was mad.
Mansfield was settled in the 1870s and soon became home to families of Irish and Scots settlers. Madeline’s family, of Scottish descent, had been there for generations. “The best ones had packed up and left,” she had always been told. They were farming people. Madeline had been the first to move down to Melbourne, but her father’s death and my unemployment convinced her that it was time to return. Her childhood, or what I knew of it, had not been an unhappy one. The whole Shire, and not just her father’s property, was full of memories for her, memories, and roads not taken.
By the early nineteenth century the first European explorers had found the soil to be rich. There was an abundance of grass, excellent for grazing cattle or sheep. (Our neighbor grazed sheep.) But even so there was initially some reluctance to settle it. Perhaps it was the influential opinion of the then Surveyor-General of New South Wales, who described much of the region as “utterly useless for every purpose of civilized man.” Madeline said time stands still in Mansfield. Her family was born and died there, so it had not stood still for them. Something I refrained from pointing out. Andy and I had only been there once.
Madeline’s father had employed a young, newly married neighbor of his to assist him with the running of the farm, and on our arrival Madeline and I immediately appointed him manager of the farm. Her father had needed only his physical assistance, but I needed a fulltime tutor. His name was Neil Mahoney. In his early thirties, he was the youngest of a large family, large enough to spare him from working his parents’ property. His wife was almost ten years younger than him and, within a year of his becoming our manager, was expecting their second child. Madeline had heard that it had been difficult for Neil to find a wife because the Mahoneys had too many sons for their acreage. It was said they would overgraze. Two older Mahoney boys had left Mansfield for Melbourne only to return, having been unable either to find or hold on to jobs. Now they were both married and, together with Neil’s father and an older sister’s husband, they all worked the Mahoney farm.
Neil was patient with me, patient in his explanations and his demonstrations. In return I was honest with him. I told him I was a poet who had tried to support himself and his family as a clerk. I was also an occasional essayist, I told him. (This was not completely untrue. I had written one unpublished essay titled “Critical Theory as a Metaphor for Illness.”) I tried to be unafraid of my mistakes or at least faithful to them. I had never been a farmer before and was not meant to know the things he was teaching me. But despite this I still had to fight the feeling that he thought I was a fool. He watched me.
It was not anything that he said, but I felt a little uncomfortable with him. It was an unease that never really disappeared completely. Each time I felt uncomfortable in my role as a farmer, I would force myself to write something, even if it was just a letter to a newspaper. I composed verse in my head while examining the fences with Neil or hay feeding the cattle during winter. I learned that, despite the rain, it was too cold and dark in the winter for the grass to grow. We needed the grass to grow to feed the cattle to support ourselves. Neil worried about the weather and the grass all the time, but I never did. After all, if the grass did not grow, no one could fairly blame me. Madeline could not blame me. I did not think she could blame me.
She found in me something to blame when I returned from the town one day with three kittens. They were a gift for her. I had bought them from the younger sister of the bored and sullen teenage girl with scrambled-egg hair who worked at the Welcome Mart. Where the older girl at the Welcome Mart had made a weapon of her adolescence, the younger girl had not yet given up on adults and would talk with them in the street. She would even offer them her kittens for sale.
“People don’t keep kittens in the country—not here,” Madeline told me when I surprised her with them in a canvas bag the young girl had thrown in at no extra cost.
I thought she might warm to them if I left her alone with them. In the shed I found Neil cleaning a rifle. He seemed to know what he was doing, yet again. I knocked tentatively in order not to surprise him.
“Is that your gun, Neil?”
“No, it’s yours. It was your father-in-law’s.”
“What do we need a gun for?”
“For killing things.” He looked up at me.
“Animals that need to be put down . . . cattle . . . all sorts of things. You just never know.”
There was so much I did not know. What I knew was of no use to the people around me. Perhaps it was of no use to anyone. And I did not really know it. It was more that I had heard it. Lines, words, snatches of poems, came to me and then from me. I was merely a conduit for them. What did they have to do with me? Mostly they were not even my lines. I could be in a field and suddenly I would be unable to rid myself of Eliot or Wordsworth or Shakespeare. Increasingly, however, it was something from the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. His lines, more than any, got me through the day. They hummed to me. Eventually I could not get rid of them.
If you are voluntary, they let you keep your own clothes. This was the most obvious difference between the first and the second time. Another was that I did not know how I got there the first time. I was there when I woke up. I was lying on a bed with tubular steel railing around it. My pajamas, the sheets and the pillow cases were a standard blue, all with a Department of Health logo on them. The bed next to me was unmade. The mattress was covered in vinyl and had brass eyelets over which there was a thin metal gauze. Two beds down from me a man lay on his front, trying to fit all of his face on the Department of Health logo on his pillowcase. He wore blue pajamas too. We were not voluntary.
I tried to remember how I got there but could not. I had been in the car with Madeline. She was driving. It was a long drive. We were going to Lake Eildon. The kittens slept huddled together in the backseat. Madeline turned off the radio after we had driven a short distance. I noticed she was not in her usual sloppy slacks but was instead wearing a dress. I remember she was wearing a brooch.
“Why do you have your good clothes on?”
She shrugged and kept her eyes on the road.
“I had an uncle who used to tell us, ‘Always wear your worst clothes.’”
“Why?” she asked without looking at me, still with her eyes on the road.
“You have more of them. ‘Don’t be tempted into wearing your best clothes,’ he’d say. ‘Save them for a better occasion. If ever you find yourself wearing your best clothes, it means you’ve admitted to yourself that it’s never going to get any better than this.’ They buried him in his best clothes.”
“That’s not true,” Madeline said, both hands on the wheel.
“No, it is. I had an uncle and . . . he’s . . . he’s dead now. . . . But it’s like the title of that book by Yevtushenko, prose, not poetry, Don’t Die Before Your Death. Yevtushenko’s telling us to wear our best clothes before it’s too late. He’s got a remarkable spirit, that man. I met him, you know, in Melbourne.”
“Few years ago now. Told a great story. Well, more than one, but this one concerned a poor Russian peasant who tried to save what little money he had by training his horse to eat less and less each week. With every week the peasant fed his horse a little less than the previous week.
“One day, his neighbor noticed him putting a piece of string around the horse’s stomach.
“‘What are you doing?’ he asked the poor peasant.
“‘I am training my horse not to eat so much, to work on less and less food.’
“‘That’s madness! Both of you will come to a sorry end,’ the neighbor replied.
“‘You think so. Look at this,’ the peasant said, removing the string from around the horse. ‘This is where the two sides of the string used to meet around his waist, and now—look!’ he said, letting the surplus string dangle in the breeze before adding with pride, ‘And he still works!’
“The peasant continued cutting back his horse’s food. Each week the peasant boasted to his neighbor about the savings he had made on his horse’s food that week, and each week the neighbor continued to warn him of his, the horse’s and his family’s imminent demise if the peasant persisted in his folly. One day, the peasant approached the neighbor with more string than ever suspended from his sausage fingers dangling in the breeze. He cried out triumphantly to his neighbor, ‘Still working, and this week I gave him no food!’
“With the money he had saved on the horse’s feed, he drank throughout the night, celebrating. When he woke the next morning, the horse was dead. Two weeks later the Revolution came to the village where the peasant lived, horseless, with his family beside his neighbor and his family and their healthy horse. When the revolutionaries got to the peasant’s house, they found him shouting at his wife, a knife in the hand where once the string had been, his children cowering in the corner. They had first seen the neighbor next door with his wife, children and his horse, and now they saw poverty and desperation in the peasant’s home.
“‘Did the bourgeois kulak next door reduce you to this, Comrade?’ they asked the peasant.
“‘Yes,’ the frightened peasant answered. ‘Yes, he always mocked me, said I was crazy and that I would have a miserable end.’
“The neighbor was immediately arrested for being a bourgeois kulak, dragged out of his house and shot in front of his wife and children. Immediately after the execution the peasant was given his dead neighbor’s horse.
“The peasant was of course overjoyed, falling over himself to praise the revolutionaries. He quickly had his children singing revolutionary songs and before too long was himself a member of the Party. Such was his zeal and his genuine peasant origins that he was taken to the capital and paraded as a fine example of the modern citizen, an agrarian peasant who had seen the virtue of the Revolution.
“He became well known throughout the Party and was rewarded with higher and higher appointments until finally he was appointed commissar in charge of literature. One of his duties was the allocation of grants and stipends to poets and prose writers. It was said that for years he could be heard exclaiming in drunken exaltation down the corridors, ‘Still working, and this week I gave him nothing!’”
Madeline had her eyes on the road. The trees were rushing past. We were nearing the lake.
“That’s not true,” she said.
“Well, it’s a story but—”
“Yevtushenko never told you that story.”
“No, well, he didn’t tell it directly to me but—”
“How can you lie like that?”
“Oh, Maddy . . . It’s a . . . it’s a story.”
“You lie to yourself.”
“Maddy, let’s not argue.”
But we did. She did. She shouted at me in an increasingly shrill voice. She sounded hysterical. I heard her but could not make out her words. It reminded me of birds in the country first thing in the morning. She drove faster and shouted louder till neither of us could see the trees for the wood. There was not a trace of the young woman for whom I had written that poem so long ago. The person in the driver’s seat would have been unrecognizable to that young woman. We had come so far, too far and I, wanting to go back, began reciting:
“Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky.”
But she did not join in as she once had.
“Let us go then, you and I . . .”
I began repeating it.
“Let us go then, you and I . . .”
“Let us go then, you and I . . .”
She stopped the car abruptly so that it jerked forward after the engine had stopped. We were as close to the lake as the car could go. Madeline leant over to the backseat, opened the mouth of the empty canvas bag with an outward stretch of one hand and scooped up the kittens with her other hand. She moved so quickly. The side of her body touched my face. I could suddenly smell the perfume she used to wear so long ago. She was wearing it again. She handed me the canvas bag with the kittens inside and reached over me to unlock the passenger door. Then she spoke.
“So go, then.”
“Put them out of our misery.” She pointed to the lake.
“In the lake?”
“Oh no, no, Maddy. I can’t.”
“It’s best,” she said, leaning over me and opening the door. “I can’t keep them and they won’t survive out here.”
“I can’t. Maddy, I can’t.”
The kittens mewed from inside the bag.
“Will you go!” she shouted, pushing me out of the car.
I fell out of the car, standing only to trip over a fallen branch. The kittens spilled out of the bag, scurrying in different directions. I tried to catch them, grabbing hold of one at the expense of the other two, going after another and losing the first. Madeline shouted something but I could not make it out. Very quickly I had lost all three kittens. They ran and I ran. I ran and ran. Towards the lake. I heard the car pull away. The kittens were gone and so was Madeline. All I could hear was the sound of myself: my breathing, running, heaving. There was dirt in my mouth. I had fallen, cut my leg, a ridiculous man facedown in the dirt beside Lake Eildon, crying to myself.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.
The sweet features of my personal failings, once just hinted at, had grown too pronounced for her.
Was she crying, too, in the car? Now I am sure that she was not. But, waking tranquilized in someone else’s pajamas in the permanently makeshift psych ward of that tiny hospital, I still had not realized, despite what had just happened, the extent of her contempt for me.
From the outside the building is spacious; yet, from the inside, the walls creep up on you. They crept up on me. So did Hugh Brasnett. Hugh’s bed was two away from mine. He was the young man, not much older than Andy, whom I had seen earlier lying on his front trying to fit his face on the Department of Health logo on the pillowcase.
“Who is Mandelstam?”
“Who is Mandelstam?” he repeated.
“Mandelstam was a Russian poet. Why do you ask me that?”
“Was? Is he dead?”
“You were calling for him.”
“Before. When you came in. Before they gave you a shot.”
“Who gave me a shot?”
“She did,” Hugh said, pointing at a young woman I had to lean forward to see out of the doorway. Her name was Sarah. She was a nurse and I learned later the younger sister of Neil Mahoney’s wife. If a field mouse could be an attractive young woman, it would look like Sarah.
“He’s awake now,” Hugh called.
She put down whatever she was carrying and came to sit down on my bed.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Okay. A little—”
“Well, yes, but I was going to say . . . embarrassed.”
“Who’s Mandelstam?” Hugh interrupted.
“You’re Madeline’s husband, aren’t you?”
“My brother-in-law, Neil, is her manager.”
“Her manager?” “I’m sorry. I thought . . . Wasn’t it Madeline’s family’s property?”
“Yes. That it was. That it is.”
“Who the fuck was Mandelstam?”
Hugh was so bored that interrupting us seemed the best thing on offer. So I found myself in the psych ward of a tiny rural hospital telling a disturbed but not unintelligent young country boy about the life and times of Osip Mandelstam. And Sarah, whom I had expected to leave us, stayed where she was and listened.
“Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was born in Russia, of Jewish parents, in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Educated in St. Petersburg, he had the misfortune of being unable to do anything at all with himself except write some of the finest poetry his country and perhaps the world has ever known.”
“Why is that a misfortune?” Hugh asked.
“Because Mandelstam was writing in a place that valued poetry so much that a poet could be arrested for a single poem. Many lesser poets were arrested, exiled and sometimes killed for their writing, even the ones who made a religion of attempting to curry favor with the regime. And Mandelstam was temperamentally incapable of this sort of thing.
“I was only in a childish way connected to the established order;
I was terrified of oysters and glanced distrustfully at guardsmen;
And not a grain of my soul owes anything to that world of power,
However much I was tortured trying to be someone else.”
“That was beautiful,” Sarah said.
“How do you remember it?” asked Hugh.
“I’m . . . a poet,” I said, and then, turning to Sarah, “If you’re Neil’s sister-in-law, you would probably know that I’m not a farmer.” Sarah smiled uncomfortably.
“We’ve never had a poet here, have we, Hugh?”
“Really,” I said, looking around at the blue, pink and green pastels surrounding me. “That is surprising.”
“What happened to Mandelstam?” Hugh asked.
“He recited a certain poem, an epigram, privately, in front of five people whom he must have regarded as his friends, and the rest is, as they say, history.”
“It is said he was in Pasternak’s apartment, Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago. He was there one night. Mandelstam, bravely or foolishly, depending on your point of view, recited a very short poem which sealed his fate. It’s hard to believe he didn’t know the danger he was putting himself into, and yet, if he did know, it is even harder to understand why he did it. But one night, in May 1934 I think it was, after he had been laughing and talking for hours with his wife and their friend, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and an irritating translator, a pesky hanger-on, there came a knock at the front door of the Mandelstams’ apartment. It was by then one o’clock in the morning, and before opening the door his wife announced quietly, ‘They’ve come for Osip.’ They had been expecting this.
“The men of the secret police always wore the same civilian overcoats so that people were never in any doubt as to who they were. Perhaps this was the intention. That night there was no doubt who they were. There were no introductions, not even a cursory check to see if this was the Mandelstams’ apartment. With a practiced skill they quickly went past his wife without touching her, and suddenly Mandelstam’s tiny apartment was filled with men in overcoats checking their identity papers and efficiently frisking them for concealed weapons.
“Of course, Mandelstam had no weapons. He was a poet. He only had words, and after showing him a search warrant the secret police went tearing through their drawers, looking for Mandelstam’s words. One of the policemen took time out from the search to advise the civilians not to smoke so much, producing a box of hard candy from the pocket of his uniform trousers and offering them some.
“The search continued all night. The secret police, the NKVD, as they were called, made two piles of Mandelstam’s papers, one on a chair, one on the floor. When the translator, like a frightened primaryschool student, asked permission to go to the toilet, they contemptuously let him go home. Without any particular malice they kept walking over the papers they threw on the floor. The sun had already risen by the time they left the apartment. They took only forty or so sheets of paper—and Mandelstam—with them.”
“Why were they contemptuous of the translator?” Hugh asked. “He was an informer sent there to make sure the other three didn’t destroy any manuscripts before the knock on the door. The NKVD always had contempt for their stooges.”
“But . . . who was Nadia?” Sarah asked in the voice of a child, as if embarrassed by her need to know.
“Nadia? I didn’t say anything about Nadia.”
“You did before,” Hugh said. “When you were out of it.”
“Who was Nadia?” Sarah repeated.
“Nadia is the name Mandelstam called his wife, Nadezhda. What did I say about her?”
The two of them looked at each other.
“What kind of woman was Nadia?” Sarah asked.
My mouth was dry. This impromptu lecture on Russian literature was even more bizarre than the events leading up to my hospitalization. I thought for a long while about Mandelstam’s Nadia.
“Her every thought was about him. If not for her, we would not know him. She saved his manuscripts. She wrote letters to him when he was imprisoned, letters she knew he had little chance of receiving. But she wrote them anyway. She would have known they were beating him, starving him, freezing him, but still she wrote to him. She wrote, You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened, but you did not reply. That was in the last letter she ever wrote to him.”
None of us spoke. It was left to someone else to break the silence.
From another room someone looking for assistance called, “Excuse me.” Sarah stood and straightened herself up before leaving the room.
“Do you think . . . you’re Mandelstam? Is that it?” Hugh asked.
“No. I don’t think I’m Mandelstam. That would be too easy for them, Hugh. I’m not Mandelstam. I don’t think I have his talent, his feeling for language. I don’t live in his times. I don’t have his life. I don’t have his . . .”
Sarah came back in. There was someone to see me. It was Andy. He took a couple of tentative steps. I watched him see me there for the first time. He moved his sunglasses and car keys from one hand to the other.
“This is my son, Andy.”
Hugh looked at Andy and Andy looked at Hugh. I wondered what was uppermost in my son’s mind. Was it the humiliation of seeing his father in a psychiatric ward? Or was he thinking that Hugh and I had already had a conversation that transcended any he and I had ever had? If he was thinking this, he was right. But whatever he was thinking, he nodded politely to Hugh, told me he would be waiting at reception and then left me to change back into my dirt-ridden clothes in front of Hugh.
Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that so many of her contemporaries, whether they had been imprisoned themselves or not, were extremely well “prison-trained.” They knew instinctively how to seize what she called “the last chance of being heard.” Hugh went back to the Department of Health logo on his pillow until I had my pants on, but then, when he turned his attention back to me, I could see that he was sad, sadder than he had been throughout his introduction to Mandelstam.
“I think I might like to be a poet. What do you think?” he asked me quietly.
“I think you’re well on your way,” I said as we shook hands. As I walked out I heard him begin the poet’s business of keeping himself company: “I was only in a childish way connected to the established order.” He said it quietly. There was no one else there.
Sarah and Andy were deep in conversation as they walked towards the gates, and I, not wanting to add to the wretchedness of the circumstances of their meeting, lagged behind them. A slightly older, slightly attractive, slightly qualified young field mouse of a woman had to explain to a strong and unpretentious young man from out of town that she did not really understand what his father was doing in the dirt beside Lake Eildon or why he cried without shame in between lengthy monologues about a Russian poet and his wife. All she could tell him is that his father could go. Andy and I said good-bye to her. Then he turned and thanked her. When he put his hand on my back, new tears came to me, small ones suggesting that I might be all right. He still had the four-wheel drive and he opened the door for me.
“Are you right to go, then, Dad?”
“‘Let us go then, you and I . . .’”
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