HOUSE OF THE FORGOTTEN
Like time travellers,
we arrived at the boarding house,
rare in our youth and togetherness.
Behind the brave smile
of the white, wooden facade
the men lived like mementoes
in sad, concrete shoeboxes.
It was the nadir of winter
and shadows seeped through the courtyard,
squeezing old lungs with icy fingers
until they wheezed like defective accordions.
In the drab lounge room
television held out its flickering promises to them
as they sat on musty furniture in mustier suits.
The kerosene heater could not dispel
the coldness of their hope.
At six o’clock, we assembled
in the ’50s functional ugliness dining room
where they used the arctic cutlery
to cut each other down to size.
The car accident man whose disfigured face
was reduced to spouting clichés,
the man whose heart was devoured by the bottle,
the man who walked miles every day
but had nowhere to go,
the man whose wife had turned him out
for fear of catching his self-pity
and the friendless young man
who had never learnt to listen.
It seemed almost sinful
to look forward
to the European summer
when some of these men
would die forgotten
in the Australian winter.
In the southern winter of 1987, I was living in a small summer resort town called Mandurah which is on the coast about 72 kilometres south of Perth, Western Australia. I’d turned 30 earlier that year and my partner, Adrienne, and I had been saving hard to travel to the UK and Europe.
In my early 20s, I’d travelled extensively through Southeast and Central Asia with a friend, but neither Adrienne nor I had been to Europe. The lease on our flat expired a couple of weeks before our departure date so we checked into a local boarding house.
Places that revolve around the activities of summer seem especially dreary in winter. Somehow these men seemed to live at the periphery of the happy family image that the town’s authorities liked to cultivate. Perhaps they were cruel to each other because life had been cruel to them.