Peter Carey - Oscar and Lucinda
If there was a bishop, my mother would have him to tea. She would sit him, not where you would imagine, not at the head of the big oval table, but in the middle of the long side, where, with his back to the view of the Bellinger River, he might gaze at the wall which held the sacred glass daguerreotype of my great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins (1841-66). These bishops were, for the most part, bishops of Grafton. Once there was a bishop of Wollongong, travelling through. There was also a canon, and various other visiting or relieving reverends. Sometimes they were short-sighted or inattentive and had to have the daguerreotype handed to them across the table. My mother crooked her finger as she picked up her teacup. She would not tell the bishops that my great-grandfather's dog-collar was an act of rebellion. They would look at a Victorian clergyman. They would see the ramrod back, the tight lips, the pinched nose, the long stretched neck and never once, you can bet, guess that this was caused by Oscar Hopkins holding his breath, trying to stay still for two minutes when normally-what and geter-he could not manage a tenth of a second without scratching his ankle or crossing his leg. This was obvious to me, but I said nothing. I sat, tense, my hands locked underneath my thighs. In a moment the Bishop would ignore our big noses and many other pieces of contradictory evidence, and remark on our resemblance to this pioneer clergyman. We lined up: my mother, my brother, me, my sister. We had red hair, long thin necks like twisted rubber bands. My mother was pleased to imagine she looked like the photograph. I would rather have looked like my father. He was not like us at all. He was short, broad-faced, pigeon-chested. He had crinkled eyes and crooked teeth. He laughed and farted. He was a cunning spin bowler. He could roll a cigarette with one hand. He was not like us, and when my mother told the visiting Bishop the story of how Oscar transported the little church of St John's to Bellingen, my father would peel a match with his broad fingernail and look out through the windows to where the great physical monument to his marriage, the Prince Rupert's Glassworks-the roof painted bright red then, in the 1930s-sat high above the Bellinger River.
My mother told the story of the church in a way that always embarrassed me. There was an excess of emotion in her style. There was something false. We must have all known it, but we never spoke about it. I could not have named it anyway. She was the same in church: her responses to the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts) were loud and showy in their reverence. My father made jokes about many things, but never about this. My father was jealous of that church, although if you could see it now, it is hard to imagine why. It sits on a patch of flood-prone land beside Sweet Water Creek at Gleniffer-a tiny weatherboard building with a corrugated iron roof. For fifty years it was painted various shades of brown, and then, in 1970, it was painted a harsh lime green. Now it has gone chalky and sits in that generous valley like something on which lichen has grown. It tucks in underneath the long line of casuarinas that mark the course of the river. High above, behind this line of river, the mountains rise sharply to three thousand feet-the back wall of the valley, so steep there are no tracks, although they say there is an old tin mine up there where they planned to hide the women and children from the Japanese during the Second World War. I was away at the time, but it seems unlikely to me. I learned long ago to distrust local history. Darkwood, for instance, they will tell you at the Historical Society, is called Darkwood because of the darkness of the foliage, but it was not so long ago you could hear people call it Darkies' Point, and not so long before that when Horace Clarke's grandfather went up there with his mates-all the old families should record this when they are arguing about who controls this shire-and pushed an entire tribe of aboriginal men and women and children off the edge.
These are the same people who now want St John's removed on a low-loader. They want it taken to Bellingen to be used as a Sunday school.
My father, for one, would have been appreciative. He was, as I said, jealous of it. He did not like my mother's proprietorial attitude to it. Perhaps if the church had been in the town of Bellingen itself it would have been different. But Gleniffer is ten miles away. She would not hear of attending service in Bellingen, They must motor out to Gleniffer. During the war they used their petrol ration just going to church. We were all baptized there, confirmed there. I was married there. When my father died he was carried ten miles to Gleniffer for the funeral service, and then ten miles back into town to be buried. My father did not get drunk, but once, after drinking two beers, he told me that my mother walked around the perimeter of St John's like a dog pissing around a fence. But only once did he ever show my mother the intensity of his feelings. The Advent Wreath
There was no torch available for my father because I had dropped it down the dunny the night before. I had seen it sink, its beam still shining through the murky fascinating sea of urine and faeces. My father did not, as he had on an earlier occasion, come out and retrieve it. So when the lights went off in the storm the following night, he had no torch to examine the fuse-box. Lightning was striking all around us. The phone was giving small pathetic rings in response to strikes further along the line. We thought our fuses were blown by a backsurge in the power system. My father took a candle out on the veranda. The candle blew out. When he came back into the house he did not have the fuse with him.
We were sitting in silence at the kitchen table.
My father said: "Where is the fuse-wire?"
I was ten years old. I sat next to my mother. My sister was sixteen; she sat next to me. My brother was fourteen; he sat next to my sister.
"I used it," my mother said. People described her as a tall woman. She was not. She was five foot six, but she had an iron will and a suspicious nature and this, combined with her power as an employer in the glassworks, was a tall combination.
I could smell the smoking candle. Although my father held this candle, I knew he could not smell it. He had no sense of smell at all.
"How did you use it?" I could not see my father. I waited for the next flash of lightning. "How?" He had a hoarse voice. This was somehow connected with the loss of his sense of smell. He syringed his nasal passages with salt water every morning. Often he would ask: "Does it smell?"
"It" was his nose.
"I used it," my mother said, "to make the Advent wreath." There was no note of apology in her voice. Lightning sheeted the kitchen. She had her head tilted in the air in that disdainful pose which, in the family mythology, was said to resemble a camel. I felt very tense. I was the one who had helped my mother make this Advent wreath. There had been no holly or ivy, but I had found camphor laurel leaves, which are shiny and green. I knew she had not only used the fuse-wire but had taken the wire netting from my brother's rabbit hutches. The rabbits were, at this moment in shoe boxes in the linen press. She did not think that they would piddle. It did not occur to her.
My father lit the candle. He did not approach the table. He did not go back towards the door. He stood in the middle of the room.
"Where is it?" he asked.
"At church," my mother said. "Please, David, sit down."
"What does it matter?"
"It matters to me."
I cannot explain how frightening this was. My father did not speak like this. He liked life to be quiet. Even when he was dying, he tried to do it in a way that would not upset my mother.
"St John's," she said.
Of course it was St John's. What else would it have been? But for some reason this announcement seemed to outrage him. He clasped his head. He put the candle on top of the Kelvinator where it promptly went out again.
"Oh, Christ," he said. "Jesus, Joseph and fucking Mary." In the lightning I saw my sister's mouth drop open.
My mother stood up. She never made gentle or gradual movements. She stood so quickly her chair fell backwards. It crashed to the floor. The phone rang-two short bleats, then stopped.
"Kneel," my mother said. She meant for God to forgive my father his blasphemy. We understood her meaning, but we were outside our normal territory. Only "divorce" could have frightened me more, only "sex" been more embarrassing.
"Kneel," she shrieked.
Later we knew she was a bully. But when we were children, we felt too many confusing things. Mostly we wanted her to love us. So we came and knelt beside her, even my brother although he liked to stay up late and talk cricket with my father.
Then my father knelt too.
We stayed there kneeling on the hard lino floor. My brother was crying softly. Then the lights came on.
I looked up and saw the hard bright triumph in my mother's eyes. She would die believing God had fixed the fuse.
There would have been no church at Gleniffer if it had not been for a Christmas pudding. There would have been no daguerreotype of Oscar Hopkins on the banks of the Bellinger. I would not have been born. There would be no story to tell.
This was not a normal Christmas pudding. It was a very small one, no bigger than a tennis ball. It contained two teaspoons of glacé cherries, three dessertspoons of raisins, the peel of one orange and the juice thereof, half a cup of flour, half a cup of suet, a splash of brandy, and, apart from the size, you would not think it was such an abnormality were it not for the fact that it was cooked in the cottage of my greatgreat-grandfather, Theophilus Hopkins, in Hennacombe, Devon, England.
Theophilus Hopkins was a moderately famous man. You can look him up in the 1860
Britannica. There are three full columns about his corals and his corallines, his anemones and starfish. It does not have anything very useful about the man. It does not tell you what he was like. You can read it three times over and never
Oscar and Lucinda
guess that he had any particular attitude to Christmas pudding.
He was a dark wiry widower of forty, hard and bristly on the outside, his beard full, his muscles compacted, and yet he was a soft man, too. You could feel this softness quivering. He was a sensualist who believed passionately that he would go to heaven, that heaven outshone any conceivable earthly joy, that it stretched, a silver sheet, across the infinite spaces of eternity. He steeled himself in the face of his temporal feelings as a Royal Guardsman-a carouser and a funny man when at the pub-must remain poker-faced when flies crawl across his eyelids. He was one of the Plymouth Brethren and he thoughtthere is nothing mad in this particular bit-that the feasts of the Christian Church were not Christian at all. His problem was his temper, although the word is misleading. His problem was his passion. His body was a poor vessel for containing it, and when it came to Christmas each year it was all he could do to keep himself in check. For the most part he used his passion constructively-he was a preacher and it was his great talent to make his listeners share his feelings. He would not call it Christmas. He would call it Yuletide. He had so convinced his small congregation of farm workers, thatchers, warreners, charcoalburners, fishermen-all those earnest white-laundered folk who, if they could read at all, could only do it slowly, with a finger on each word-so convinced them that Christmas was not only pagan but also popish, that they went out about the fields and lanes on Christmas Day as if it were any other day. Their Baptist neighbours laughed at them. Their Baptist neighbours would burn in hell.
Oscar was fourteen, an age when boys are secretive and sullen. Yet he did not question his father's views. He knew his own soul was vouched safe and when he read the Bible, aloud, by the fire, he placed no different interpretation upon it than the man who poked the little grate and fussed continually with the arrangement of the coal. They both read the Bible as if it were a report compiled by a conscientious naturalist. If the Bible said a beast had four faces, or a man the teeth of a lion, then this is what they believed.
But on this particular Christmas Day in 1858, they had a second servant where previously they had one. The first servant was the large bustling Mrs Williams who brushed her untidy nest of wire-grey hair with a tortoiseshell brush whenever she was agitated. She had been with the family fifteen years, ten years in London, and five years in Devon. In Hennacombe she brushed her hair more often. She fought with the butcher and the fishmonger. She swore the salt air was bad for her catarrh, but it was-as she said-"too late to be making changes
now." She stayed, and although she was not "saved," and they sometimes found her hair in their scrambled eggs, she was a part of their lives.
The second servant, however, was not only not "saved." She could not even be classified as
"questing." She was an Anglican who was in the household from charity, having been deserted by her navvy husband and been denied Poor Relief by two parishes, each of whom claimed she was the other's responsibility. And it was she-freckledfaced Fanny Drabble-who was behind this Christmas pudding. She had white bony hands and bright red knuckles and had lived a hard life in sod huts and shanties beside the railway lines the brawling navvies helped to build. Her baby had died. The only clothes she had was a thin cotton dress. A tooth fell out of her mouth on her first morning. But she was outraged to discover that Oscar had never known the taste of Christmas pudding. Mrs Williams-although she should have known better-found herself swept along on the tea-sweet wave of Fanny Drabble's moral indignation. The young'un must know the taste of Christmas pudding, and what the master don't know won't hurt him. Fanny Drabble did not know that this pudding was the "flesh of which idols eat." It was only a small cottage, but it was built from thick blocks of Devon limestone. You could feel the cold limey smell of the stone at the back of your nostrils, even when you were sitting by the fire. If you were in the kitchen, you could not hear a word that was said in the tiny dining room next door. It was a cramped house, with low doorways, and awkward tripping ledges and steps between the rooms, but it was, in spite of this, a good house for secrets. And because Theophilus did not enter the kitchen (perhaps because Mrs Williams also slept there on a bench beside the stove) they could have manufactured graven images there and not been caught. But Oscar liked the kitchen. He liked the dry floury warmth and he carried the water, and riddled the grate, and sat on the table when Mrs Williams scrubbed the cobblestones. He soon realized what was going on. He saw cherries and raisins. They did not normally have raisins. He had never seen a cherry. On Christmas Day it was expected they would have a meal like any other. Theophilus had called Mrs Williams up to his study. As this study was also Oscar's schoolroom, he heard the instructions himself. His father was quite spicific. It was his character to be specific. He paid attention to the tiniest detail of any venture he was associated with.