Next Sunday afternoon twelve writers are reading poems, stories, responses to art work in a Print Exhibition at the Geelong Art Gallery. I'm one of them and will read a story I wrote these last few weeks in response to a sculptural piece called 'The Tower of Babel'. I got quite a way from the Biblical reference and just imagined the life of an elderly man who became agoraphobic. Each reading is supposed to be less than 5 minutes so I'm not sure if it's too long or not. I made a small sketch of the item I wrote about - changed the colours a bit.
-------The Babel Tower
The sand dunes rippled like fine merino fleece. Spinifex dotted the rises and a stand or two of mallee gums smudged the skyline like a Fred Williams painting. Sally-Ann dared not drive her car further into the sandy bowl where the strange tower rose. The Cortina was parked near a dried lake bed cracked and grey because of the drought. The building was cupped inside a valley so it couldn’t be seen until you were right upon it. Each storey entwined the one higher, like an ice cream cone. It was painted a sand colour almost as a disguise. In a trick of light she thought it was a house made of playing cards with its straight rectangles, although the details were not of queens and kings and jokers but of numerous narrow slits for windows as in picture books. The hum of electricity wires suggested the house still had power.
Arthur McBright, whom Sally-Ann had never met, had moved out here three decades ago so they'd told her at the Mirror Lakes Grand Hotel, one of those two storey country pubs with a decorative cast iron verandah all around. She had visited the country town because her mother had wanted to be buried ‘back home’.
Now Sally-Ann recalled those warnings about the grandfather.' 'Forget our side of the family. Don't bother to visit the old man. He won’t welcome you.. He lives out of town in the sand hills.'
When Sally-Ann had joked back, 'Building a house on sand, not on a rock?' her mother had been furious. 'Don’t thrust religion down my throat, Sally-Ann! My family's had far too much of that! ' Sally-Ann could still hear her mother's insistent shrill voice even though her mother was dead.
The funeral had taken place less than three hours earlier. The old man had not attended. When Sally-Ann had asked the funeral director, he had muttered something about the Tower of Babel then gave her complicated instructions on how to get to his ‘tower’ in the sand hills about 25 k from Mirror Lakes.
She had asked the barman about her grandfather.
‘He was very bright, sociable, until he started collecting history books.’
An older man, drinking at the bar had interrupted, ‘No, it was religion that got him. He was obsessed about finding God.’
Another man had said,. 'No, it was the opposite. He gave up on religion.’
The encroaching sand had silted up the main door of the tower but a stone pathway led around the side until saw a car garage so there must have been another track in. Apparently the Mercedes was rarely driven.
After Sally-Ann rattled an iron door knocker at a back entrance, a thin middle-aged woman opened the door. ‘And just who are you?' Three ginger and white cats performed circles around her ankles.
'Mr McBright’s grand-daughter. My Mum’s funeral was this morning. She is…was… Audrey.'
'Yeah, I know all about you and your mother. Kept yourselves away, didn’t you!'
‘Mum said we wouldn’t be welcome.'
'And neither you are, so go back to the city where you came from.' The woman slammed the door shut. The sand swished around as if seconding the words.
Sally-Ann stood away from the house and shouted out, 'Mr McBright! Mr McBright!’ She noticed movement from about four storeys up. Someone was looking down over a parapet. Sally-Ann waved her arms. ‘I’m your granddaughter.’
A few minutes later, the woman, presumably the housekeeper, opened the door. ‘He said to come in,’ she muttered through gritted teeth.’ She led the way as the rainbow coloured cats nearly tripped them both up. It was like climbing up a lighthouse. Sally-Ann pulled her digital camera from her backpack and took three shots looking upwards, entranced by the symmetrical spiral patterns.
The housekeeper unlocked a door and Sally-Ann found herself in a small gallery with several surrealist paintings, then the two women moved into a circular room with small pointed Gothic windows and a brocade wall-hanging of a medieval scene of Canterbury Tales pilgrims with horses and donkeys. Though there were three lights dangling from the ceiling the room was poorly lit. She barely could see the old man because he blended in with the beige covered straight back chair until he shifted his weight. So this thin man was her grandfather. He was dressed in a khaki overall and striped blue shirt and his socks were not matching. He wore no shoes at all.
The housekeeper stood there, hands on hips, the cats still around her feet. Then she hurried from the room and the cats swished away.
'I don’t know you!’ the man barked.
‘I’m Sally-Ann. I came up for Mum’s funeral. Audrey, your daughter. And you weren’t even there,' she accused.
‘ I heard she’d died.' He scowled. ‘She never came up to see me. Not since…'
'Never mind. Anyway, I suppose you want my money. Is that why you’ve come?'
'No, no. I’m not like that. I’m just… The people in the hotel said you have a lot of books and I’m…well, interested to know what kind…' Her voice dwindled..
‘You want to sell them then?'
"No, just have a look. I'm curious…'
He tried to stand up from the straight back chair,. He rocked three times but still could not get up. Sally-Ann took one arm and pulled until he stood up shakily. She looked around for a walking stick, found it and placed it into his hand.
'I’m a molly-duiker,’ he grumbed. ‘Wrong hand.’
‘Me too,’ said Sally-Ann brightly. ‘Must be in the genes.’
Did she sense a tiny smile?
Alright, come this way.' He had a set of keys on his belt and used them to unlock one door after another, as he shuffled along.
Sally-Anne felt claustrophobia kicking in; she wanted to see windows. After another key in a lock, a door swung open to reveal a huge library, wall-to-wall books except for narrow windows where late afternoon sunlight streamed in.
When Sally-Ann took out her digital camera, her grandfather frowned. ' Don’t take any of me. I barely have any teeth left.'
‘No, I’ll just take pictures of your books, your paintings, your cats, and the views from these unusual windows.' She framed pictures so that she could see the sand-dunes. The spinifex looked like bushes on fire. She took out her mobile phone, switched it on to reveal a photo of her son David, 'Grandpa, this is my son Dave. Mum wanted him named after her brother who apparently died when he was young..'
He seemed to pale, lost his balance, then steadied himself. 'Children only hurt you… Well, you’d better go now. It’s nearly sunset,' the old man muttered..
There’s not much babel going on here then, Sally-Ann decided.
Was the house of seven storeys going to turn into a pumpkin or something?
'You have to drive back. You might get lost. The road is not well marked.'
'That’s nothing. I drive every day to work in the city which is far more dangerous than a few kangaroos on the road.'
'It’s time for you to go, ' he insisted.
'Okay.' Should she kiss him goodbye? His glinting eye seemed to say – keep back. She hugged him anyway, bumping noses and kissing an ear.
He shoved four books into her hands and said, 'Take these.' They were dusty but one looked like a First Edition of Alice in Wonderland. He pointed to the exit door, but she knew there were more storeys below. A descending walkway wound all the way down to the lowest storey.
Now she could breathe easy. She snapped eight more photos which could be cropped and manipulated on her computer back in the city. Sally-Ann remembered something the barman had said. ‘Arthur McBright raged against God when the kid drowned and he blamed Audrey.’
Though the tower might come tumbling down one day or just disappear and go back to sand, there was no closure at her mother’s funeral after all.
Labels: Australian short stories, The Tower of Babel