Ulysses, My Captain

June 16th.  Bloomsday at Collected Works book shop in Melbourne, an oasis to one who has journeyed from the desert of the suburbs.  But now I am far from that tiny upstairs book shop, and I am reminded of those day-long readings about events in the lives of characters who make journeys through the city of Dublin during a day in the past.  I also feel far from people who read and people who write. 

     I am minding our two sons while my wife drives interstate for a job interview.  I try to calculate where she is, adjusting the hours (since she left/until her expected return) and I try to tally the miles (those she might have covered/those perhaps still to be covered) but I can justify too many rationales for where I might place her as a dot on the map at any particular time.

     The weather is wild.  Lightning, thunder, heavy rain.  Although it is still early I have been up since dawn trying to amuse our sons.  Many times they have been told where their mother has gone — in terms I can only hope they understand — but they ask yet again.  I like electrical storms.  I even like walking in the rain.  But we are confined because our elder boy is frightened of thunder.  I seem to have caused this fear.  When he had been a toddler and we had experienced our first thunderstorm together I had initiated a childish adventure pretending I was afraid of the thunder, not thinking that he might become afraid.  Now I need to find an effective way of introducing him to the beauty of different moods of weather.  I am a slow learner.   

     Last night I watched The Book Show on S.B.S. and when my son who is afraid of thunder switches the television on we see the test pattern with an advertisement for a C.D. set running continuously across the bottom of the screen — the complete songs of Elvis for $85.  I urge the boys not to change channels as I croak along with the young Elvis, and my boys, arrested by my antics, resist the opportunity of squabbling over the commercial channels to stare at me.  I get only a few of the lyrics wrong.

     This music which no longer interests me takes me back to the days of my first sexual love, a thin, pale, exuberant girl.  We played records while we made love in the dark.  Whenever a record finished the one closest to the record-player would reach an arm from under the blankets to change the record, then we would resume our loving.  Sometimes, coiled together, or on our backs smoking cigarettes, we whispered about the singers’ personal lives or the meaning of the lyrics.  Then we would butt our cigarettes and return to our untiring fascination with each other.  I thought my lover’s adolescent body was beautiful, and each time she hurried back to her parents’ home after our lovemaking, leaving me alone in my cell-like rented room, my mouth retained an aftertaste: her lipstick, her mouth, and a lingering sense of satiation.

     The words of a song on the television…though we’re apart, you’re part of me still…remind me that each time we make significant contact with someone that person becomes a part of us no matter how many years go by.  I sometimes dream at night about slight acquaintances from my past.  These characters who played small roles in my life appear in precise detail.  The neatness of a man’s grey moustache, the way another wore a fountain-pen clipped in his pocket, the timbre of their voices, even the texture of their skin, all return to me at night.  But I never dream about people with whom I was once close.

     Why do I dream about people who meant so little to me?  Why don’t I dream about my intimates of the past?  Does this happen because I often can’t remember many of the details of the important events in my life?  Or should I not confuse the memory of dreams with conscious memory?  Thinking about this, I remember a comment at the end of an early short story by John Updike.  The only part of this story I remember is his narrator describing the past as a vast sheet of darkness where a few moments, apparently pricked at random, briefly shine.     

     I realise that some of these people of my memories and dreams might be dead, like Elvis who ended his life a bloated caricature.  That thin, pale girl is a mature woman, perhaps no longer thin, no longer exuberant.  She could be dead, too, a thought which would have been preposterous back when Elvis serenaded us in my rattling single brass bed, long before C.D.s, before old brass beds again became popular.

     My lover dropped me for a man with a suntan.  I was still only a light-skinned boy, so I couldn’t compete.  I was devastated that such a thing could happen, that just when I was in love and my circumscribed world seemed to be in order, this god of a man — I think he was a builder — who wore shorts and worked outside and had brown legs, could reduce my order to the chaos of heartache simply by entering my life and taking my lover away from me.  I had believed that my ignorant happiness could continue, unthreatened, indefinitely.

                                                                        ***

One of our dogs is dead.  She was a bootlicking border collie cross we rescued from the pound more than seven years ago; my Christmas present for my wife in the days when we mistakenly thought that we might choose to remain childless.  I found the dog when I stepped, unsuspecting, out the back door into a black evening.  She was still alive but stiff and trembling, her nose straining towards our home.  We thought she had been poisoned, an unbearable thought. 

     We agreed to an autopsy, and the vet. was frustrated when no bait was evident.  The vet. had taken the dog home with her that night and kept her alive until morning.  Her unproven belief is that the dog was a victim of a restricted poison which some farmers use.  We decided it would be a pointless expense sending a sample of our dog’s stomach contents to the city for analysis.  There was some damage to her heart so we have settled on a stroke as the cause of her death.  She could have been older than we believed, and life itself damages the heart. 

     That dog had been a part of our lives for seven years.  Where do the years go?  Where have they all gone since Elvis sang Love Me Tender in a whispery voice that was made for young hearts?  As I sit with a full-length window overlooking the garden to the side of me, I sometimes see a flash of our other dog, and I believe for just a fraction of a moment that I am seeing our border collie.  Our boys hardly mentioned their pet’s death.  Slightly unnerved by their apparent lack of interest, I wondered about its cause.

     Before the dog’s death one of our cats died.  We had noticed that he had become thin but beyond this we had not taken enough notice.  This cat, towards the end of his life, was always trying to slip inside the house.  When he succeeded I would grab him, open the back door, and drop him roughly onto the porch.  I was usually irritated by the cat’s persistence.  By the time we realised that our cat was seriously ill he only had a couple of days of his ninth life left.  I made him as comfortable as I could during his last afternoon.  After checking on him countless times, always with the expectation of finding him dead, I carried him on his final journey and buried him, appropriately, beneath our cypress trees.  I guessed that cancer had killed him.

     I had worked it out by then that whenever our cat had slipped inside the house he had only been trying to get closer to the warmth us humans enjoy.  I had probably hurt him each time I dropped him from a height which was comfortable for me when I put him outside.  If I had nine lifelong journeys to undertake I might learn all that I need to learn, but I’m not so sure. 

     First our cat dies, followed by our dog.  Then our second cat became ill.  This time we took notice.  Both cats were young — four or five of our years — and one week the second cat was a sleek and healthy hunter of the rats and mice which flourish in our numerous old sheds and barns, and the next week he had become bony and his fur had lost its shine.  This cat had been throwing up its food during the week of its swift decline.  I felt besieged by mortality. 

     Once again the vet. kept one of our pets overnight but this time the cat, improving on antibiotics, returned to us.  The boys’ relieved pleasure on being reunited with their cat made me realise the extent to which they had already withdrawn their feelings when they had noticed our worry.  The way they had nursed their fear and hurt in silence, remembering our dog, had been masked by their apparent indifference.

                                                                        *** 

When I was twenty an Irishman in green overalls whose voice was like a melody I can still hear, cut my hair one lunchtime at work.  He didn’t charge much for the haircut which was a good thing because I couldn’t afford much. 

     I had started edging towards respectability.  Away went my old hairstyle, one like Elvis’s, with a thick duck’s arse curling around my collar, and in its place the Irishman, whose handy scissors earned him some extra pocket money, gave me a ‘college cut’.  I had never been near any colleges.  My new haircut was unnoticeable, like the factory where the Irishman and I worked in our overalls, like the surrounding factories and suburbs, the grey, neutral endlessness of it all.

     I had lost my previous job after giving the foreman a black eye.  I had been the only one to wear coloured shirts to work — red, orange, purple —  and the foreman, who was bald and bellicose, middle-aged and malevolent, liked to harass me. 

     In one of my two main memories of him I see him trouncing the reluctant apprentices at lunchtime table tennis.  He recorded the results of these games (21-5, 21-9, 21-6 — he always won) on a wall chart in the lunchroom, then he would strut around, taunting the apprentices about their inability to defeat him.  I was not an apprentice.  I did not play table tennis.  And I called it ‘ping-pong’.

     My other memory is of seeing him wearing sunglasses inside on the day following my immediate sacking.  When I had returned to the factory in the futile hope of receiving wages in lieu of notice some of my former workmates gleefully whispered the news that he was hiding a shiner.  Then it was my turn to strut, but when I had left that factory, my sack empty, there was nobody to see me strutting.  I needed to find another job. 

     I believed then that I had only punched the foreman because I thought in that instant he had been going to hit me.  He had said something derisive to me, I had snarled back, and he had raised his hand in a threatening gesture.  My job-destroying punch was a self-defensive blow which landed first, perhaps because I was younger and quicker. 

     I now concede that I must have wanted an excuse to punch him, that I surely wanted to strike a blow for all of us little people.  But I knew I couldn’t go on like that.  The world was overstocked with those who had to win at everything.  I thought that I should become unnoticeable in order to avoid being defeated by people like that foreman.  And I sensed that I needed to use words, not fists.  This change in me was not caused so much by any awakening sensibility but by an awareness of my need to survive. 

                                                                        ***     

Shortly after I had started straining towards respectability, leaving behind the influence of rock’n’roll and its accoutrements, I bought a book.  Though reading newspapers was my habit there were no books in our house, not any that I remember.  This was in keeping with what I knew of the rest of the neighbourhood.  I even read the arts pages of those newspapers, and several times I had read references in the literary pages to the novel, Ulysses.

     I thought I craved a sensible life — ‘respectability’ is an inadequate description of what I wanted from life, but then, so is ‘a sensible life’ inadequate — and I decided that I should read this book to which clever people seemed to refer all the time.  I now wonder what happened to that book. 

     The edition I bought contained A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as Ulysses: two books in one.  But I didn’t understand this idea of two books inside one cover.  Perhaps A Portrait was printed at the back of that book.  I wouldn’t expect this to be the case now, but I can’t remember.  Wherever it was situated in that long-ago book, I didn’t read it, which is a pity because, even at that stage of my life, I believe I might have managed to finish that text, maybe even enjoy it.  It is possible that I thought A Portrait was some kind of addendum to Ulysses, and as I had never come across any references to it in my week-end newspapers I didn’t bother with it. 

     If I was reading that book now, for the first time, I would begin by reading the publication details, epigraphs, the contents page, introduction, end-notes, and any other extra information, before settling into the main story, as is my habit.  Back then, I think I plunged straight into Ulysses, full of anticipation.  Much later in my life I learned to read Ulysses with some understanding, but only after realising that I had to make a considerable effort.  Back then, I experienced the biggest literary disappointment of my life.  I didn’t know that Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and W.B. Yeats had all claimed the book was unreadable.  I knew nothing of the former opinions of dead writers.  I gave up after several pages. 

     I don’t remember if I blamed Joyce for having written boring, unintelligible nonsense, or myself for being unintelligent.  I probably blamed Joyce at first because it is easy to blame someone else.  Literary effort still daunts me.  When I read and write I could be a voyager striving to reach a distant shore.  This voyager of my limited imagination travels hard, beset with troubles.  Is it the voyager’s fault for taking so long to reach his destination?  Should he continue his struggle towards an ideal of beauty of thought and language?  Or should he simply quit the campaign, end his journeying?          

                                                                        ***     

The first time I left Australia was on a Bloomsday but I wasn’t alert to this at the time even though my opinion of the work of James Joyce had improved.  I was also ignorant about air travel, so ignorant that I didn’t know the difference between Customs and Immigration.  I just shunted from one post to the next in a kind of daze, willing to obey any direction, any sign.

     Everything impressed me, especially the price of a glass of beer in the airport bar.  I must have been awed.  The exhilaration of finally leaving behind so many disapproving people, most of them related to me, must have had something to do with my pleasure, my willingness to approve. 

     As the airport buildings disappeared below I might have felt as though I was about to learn the truth, as though life’s master plan would be revealed.  I thought the work of the flight attendants was glamorous, and I even looked on my first airborne meal as a treat. 

     By the time I had arrived in Ireland most of the magic of flying had worn off.  I likened it to long-haul bus travel — with good reason, I think.  I wish I could remember the feeling when I gazed at the men’s swimming baths from Oliver Gogarty’s Martello tower, gazed at that snot-green sea — which might have been wine-dark — and watched the ferry leaving Dun Laoghaire, but I can’t remember.  Perhaps I thought I was the only person to ever do such a thing.      

     What I do remember is my first night in a youth hostel, although I no longer qualified as a youth.  I kept remembering the bombardment of advice I had absorbed about the grim consequences of the first-time overseas traveller’s ignorance.  The hostel, like the disappearance of my youth, was a gloomy experience.  I slept (waking repeatedly) next to a rumbling boiler, with my camera and money-belt inside my sleeping-sheet which became twisted as the terrible night wore on and I tried to read the time on my watch, pinned into my cotton straitjacket which began to rip apart at the seams.

     I suspected that my money would be taken from me as simply as my lover of the past had been taken by that suntanned builder, and this disaster would lead to my early return home.  I thought the pack I toted was a hindrance, but I never considered the way my mental baggage lumbered me.  In too many respects I still resembled that youth who had believed he could shed his allegiance to rock’n’roll and save money at the same time by having a cheap lunchtime factory haircut, and believed he could find his way on literature’s journey by reading the arts pages of a newspaper, and then buying a book.

     I had imagined roaming among the buildings of University College but I didn’t roam because my bladder squeezed me and my legs ached.  Lavatories were difficult to find and it was too wet to sit anywhere outside.  I felt disappointed and guilty because Dublin was so dismal, so grey.  I now think it was the late twentieth century clashing with my imagination which caused my disappointment.  When that jet had thrusted up through the clouds above Melbourne I had unconsciously been heading towards the Dublin of the early years of this century, leaving realism, among other things, behind.  I drank tea in Bewley’s, feeling guilty.  In St. Stephen’s Green a thin girl who should have been at school went from person to person, begging.  I avoided her and I tried drinking Guinness in a pub that smelled of piss.  Joyce would have understood but I still felt guilty.

     My guilt was caused by wondering if my journey had been a mistake, a waste my relatives could rightly condemn.  I suppose all journeys are a bit chancy, the leaving behind of a known world for an unknown world.  Back when I had first bought Ulysses I had taken a chance that had seemed to go wrong but the venture had eventually led to a change of direction in my life even if the process had been a lengthy one.  I felt I should persist with my efforts to see the places I had read about and imagined, felt that I should persist in seeking to discover new experiences.

                                                                        ***

My parents-in-law arrive.  She disapproves of my wife’s absence.  I can tell that she regards this absence as an abandonment of our children.  He shouts about football to hide his disapproval of me because I read and because I write and because my wife drives alone to a job interview.  She purses her lips between irritating me by repeatedly asking if there is anything she can do.  Convention and cowardice combine to limit any indication that I am irritated to what is now known as ‘body language’ — and I only imagine this from my own experience when I have irritated others.    

     The sink glitters when I suggest another cup of tea.  Our boys express delight with their grandparents’ presents.  Further inducements are offered.  The boys ask follow-up questions.  Body language is unnecessary.    

     These people can’t understand why their daughter let them down so drastically by marrying me.  Again they ask where she is and I slide into an almost manic account of my earlier thoughts on the various possibilities of my wife’s whereabouts were she to metamorphose into a dot on the map.  ‘…on the other hand, if she didn’t stop until…but if she’s run off with…’ 

     The boys stare at me again.  My parents-in-law look offended.

     As Joan Didion said, ‘Marriage is the classic betrayal’.

                                                                        ***

On that journey to Ireland and other places I visited Yeats’ tower, the one he built for his wife.  I seemed to be following signs and directions for too long, but, in the Irish way, these signs and circuitous directions eventually led to the lovely rural spot where the poet and his wife had lived.  Writers.  Distant castles.  Towers.  The love some men have for particular women. 

     Like a character in a Victorian novel I once found a letter under an antimacassar.  The opened letter had been handwritten by someone called Paul — a person I have never met — and had been written to Sinead, an Irishwoman I know who left Australia suddenly to teach in Japan.  When I last heard from her she was roaming around Ireland searching for traces of her alcoholic father’s lost past.  Sinead had stayed in my house when I was overseas.  She had left for Japan by the time I returned to the chance discovery of the letter.

     It is a letter of love, written, I think, by a man who learnt English after first learning another language.  His slight mistakes and awkward grammar make this letter of unrequited or ended love — it is unclear which — all the more poignant than these letters usually are.  The letter had been written at a youth hostel in Albany.  Paul had travelled there by bus, intending to travel on to Broome and Darwin.  He wrote about the way long-distance journeys leave plenty of time to think.  And Paul had thought about Sinead a lot while he had been cramped on that bus.  He takes a whole page before getting around to doing what any reader would know he was going to do; slice open his heart and offer it to Sinead even though he knows  she is not all that keen, knows she is hopelessly involved with somebody else.  He tries to sound glib and casual, hence the long introductory page, but in the end it’s exposed — Paul’s heart on two pages of lined white notepaper.

     A poem by Yeats, He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, has been copied by hand on a separate sheet of green paper with the heading: ‘For You!’ and included with Paul’s letter.  He has mistakenly entitled the poem: He wishes for the clothes of heaven, and has added a postscript: ‘The poem.  No more beautiful & better words have ever been written.  Isn’t it you and me?’  The poem ends with these lines:

     ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet;

      Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

     Paul has acknowledged the poem’s author, and he has also signed the green page.

     Where is Paul now?  Has he a found a love that is reciprocated?  Did he journey on in hope after Broome and Darwin?  I must find a way of asking Sinead if I meet her again one day, but she might not know.  She might become a distant memory to Paul who might journey on to other countries until he realises one day that he is middle-aged, like me, and has nothing left in common with the Sinead of his memory. 

     My wife’s return journey must be at least half over, perhaps two-thirds finished.  When we say someone is middle-aged the person’s life is usually closer to two-thirds finished than half over.  I think my wife’s journey is now middle-aged and I want her to hurry back to us, but in safety.  We are a bit lost without her, I admit it.

     I waste time with all this conjecturing about when she will be home once again.  I would be better off living for the present moment, making the most of what I have.  The weather is clear now but it could change at any time.  I should take our boys outside, in the sun, initiate a new adventure, but something holds me back. I wonder if Paul returned to his own country where he is now a stranger, a man changed for ever by the journeys he has undertaken. 

                                                                 **********

(Ulysses, My Captain was previously published in Red Leaves)

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