On the screen a man in a dark suit and shiny tie stands in front of a gigantic digital image of a swimming pool. His voice is clear and easy to follow as he relates the latest achievements of Australian athletes at the London summer olympics where the summer is not really a summer and beach volley ball is played by fully-clothed contestants on sand that has been specially shipped in from a beach. It is a night of poetic ironies.
Amongst his audience of millions is a family of four: a husband, a wife, a son and a daughter on the outskirts of a large country town in Australia. While the athletes are making the most of their English summer, this family is rugged-up for an Aussie winter in a wood and gyprock cottage with the chill staved off by fiberglass bats in the ceiling, curtains draped over a long glass wall and a gas heater burning furiously.
In here the winter is unable to make much of an impression; but out there, the tidy, shiny world of the screen looks cold to the man as he watches from the comfort of his deep blue corduroy lounge where he sits and leans his head on his wife’s lap. Across the room, his year-eleven son is at a desk half-engrossed in song-writing and half-watching the action. The year six daughter, at the same time as watching what is happening on the screen, moves from her lounge chair to a carpeted floor and back again, doing push-ups, crunches and splits whilst maintaining a running commentary with the rest of her family about the goings on in the pool and the gym.
On the TV now, four bare-chested Aussie boys walk from from the pool, hard bands of muscle rippling and water dripping as the camera closes in and a young woman’s voice asks a question. They hesitate and look at each other—their faces saying, ‘It was only a heat’. But the celebratory tone of the journalist’s voice indicates that this has been a big win.
Then a cheeky-faced boy leans forward and talks to a black stick of microphone that the woman is holding out. Water falls from wet slabs of hair as he speaks. Finally, as he and his mates are about to walk away, he grins and does a happy birthday call-out to his sister. The boy is suddenly ‘real’, the spell is broken and something touches the father and his family in the lounge room.
The screen story changes to a grainy and mood-filled montage of beautiful music and close-ups of faces looking dreamily at sunsets, forests and beaches. The boy in the lounge room groans loudly and explains to his father that it is all about a car, and sure enough, as he speaks, a gleaming piece of metal and plastic on wheels trundles over a rise. Before they can recover from this travesty, another flow of digital imagery takes the stage: happy and colourful teenagers, children and families—all dancing—in lounge rooms, on train stations and in office spaces. And hovering overhead, a shiny metallic eye: the logo of a so-called Reality TV show.
It is getting late. The wife and the two children go to bed and the husband is left in his lounge room with a coffee, his olympic screen and a head-ful of images, which have arranged themselves as a kind of gallery in the room of his memory: his wife with his head in her lap and her gentle hand touching his face; his son laughing at cheap ads whilst writing a musical score and the daughter in her sheer exuberant curiosity about this olympian extravaganza of dancing, somersaulting and swimming. Then there is the metallic eye and the anti-climactic motor vehicle: the first making his blood run cold and the second, kind of banal, but harmless. The contrast makes him think of another night when he himself was the young son of a husband and wife.
It’s a moonlit summer night in the outback and he and his three brothers have gone to bed in a massive bedroom with a four metre high ceiling and walk-through French windows that open onto verandahs on two sides. The boys are wide awake and conversing from where they sleep on steel-pipe-and-wire shearer’s cots. Fingers of moonlight touch the sheets of some of the beds and a gentle breeze flows. For a moment the talking stops and silence allows them to hear a gentle rustling of leaves. The boy in the man remembers the leaves and the tree and the look of its silvery dance when the moon is out.
But it doesn’t stop there. There’s another summer night in the same bedroom. Once again he and his brothers are all wide-awake, talking softly. But this night is about a different sound: they await the faint engine noise of an old holden coming up a long, sloping and scrub-covered ironstone ridge, followed by headlights lancing into blackness. So far they have heard nothing and are beginning to worry that their father, who has been in town all day, is taking longer than usual.
The mother sits in the room with them, reassuring them. Ironically, the darkness helps, for her chair is actually a wheelchair and the boy imagines that there is no such chair and that she is a normal mother. But the slowness of her words reminds him of two things: she is dying and she is defiant. Every word carefully and thoughtfully spoken even if obviously slurred by the force of her struggle.
Then kittens are suddenly walking in through a window and jumping on the boys’ beds. Water pistols are filled and a mad game of prancing and leaping kittens versus grabbing, squirting and rumbling boys spills out over beds that are half in light and half in darkness: sheets a mess of wet fur, claws and tiny kicking legs. Now it stops as quickly as it started and it’s quiet—apart from the sound of purring. Something is here, a numinous presence, carried inside this pouring silver moonlight, bent down from heaven and touching each one.
The man in his lounge room—where the screen no longer flickers—remembers this moment as a sweet gift. For, despite the fierceness of the mother’s battle, her defiance was not some ferocious Nietzschean super-woman’s fight to (as Bertrand Russell said), ‘build her life upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair.’ The man (her son) knows she would have scoffed at such hard-core fist-shaking. Her defiance was a sweet defiance, and confident that all the unleashed miseries of hell were an even greater reason to stand with the god of ‘Green Pastures’, of ‘Mary’s Bethlehem Babe’ and of ‘Red Dust and Box Trees’. The last title being a new one, which this son of this mother ascribed to her god many years before.
For, he reasons to himself, why should brutalities against the innocent cause us to join hands with the very thing that hates their existence? If we are not careful we become like a man, who, having reached a bitter conclusion about ife, will now go to any lengths to defend that conclusion because of the horror that he might be shown to be wrong. Hence, the breezy, cheerfully diabolical and un-embarrass-able man of the world who is secretly terrified of the fact that someone might know he was once innocent. His bankruptcy never exposed until, in an unguarded moment, he looks into the eyes of naive childhood and feels something like scorn.
Whilst reminiscing, the man recalls a poem he has written in an unpublished manuscript of his called The Black Box.
‘Why do I find myself repelled
by the sweet innocent sunshine?
I have not come for answers
Have not come for words
I repent in dust.
Why do I find myself repelled
by the sweet innocent sunshine
In these eyes?
I repent in dust
I cry out to the Lord.
It is hard it is hard for the oldness
This ache of never before
Has drained my ocean …
Drowning in the pride of Eden
Drinking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
I have not come for answers
Have not come for words
I have come for you … my saviour
I repent in dust.’