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December 10th 2008 print

Russell Erwin

The Housekeeper; From a Dream; Sirens

The Housekeeper

Nobody seemed to hold it against him

The family’d been out there for generations

And they weren’t her kids anyway.

He’d been down to Sydney for the weekend

And said, getting back, “I want you outta here

Be ten tomorrer.”

Eighteen years she was their “Manny”.

Next morning she was gone, her room

As though it’d always been empty.

Breakfast on the table, lunches cut

The laundry pressed.

Drove them? Too right he did. And hard.

“Here! Finish that after boys, I tell yer

Yer arses’re gonna keep pointin’ at the sky t’day.”

They said she cried for a week. Wept.

The publican wanted to turn her out

Of the room she took.

We felt sorry. I think everyone did.

But to see her in the main street

what could you do or say

That’d help in any way?

He was in his rights:

She was the housekeeper,

Nothing more.


Sirens

(After an incident in a Goulburn café)

In the background of a radio interview

From New York I heard

Dopplering sear-clean over every other voice

The unerring red-end needle-point of a siren.

Somewhere near someone’s life being reshaped

From what they assumed it had when, say,

They’d left their house that morning.

It’s the pitch of it, the cold metal scream,

“I am the Hard World! I am Urgent!”

Even here so hopelessly far away

There’s this widening burn

Which clears everything in us,

A paint-stripper skinning us neat as a gutted rabbit,

Coolly as anaesthetic. And you can’t do a thing

But be a figure in a photograph, whether by the kerb

Or, as now listening from the other side of the world.

And even if you could? As in those seconds

When you saw the stricken rictus of her face

Like one of the Burghers of Calais, how easily

She became something you couldn’t recognize,

How remote with only the breath. The breath?

“Shit, Shit, Shit! She’s not breathing!”

And our silly voices calling her to come back

So weak, so urgent, our words flapping like handkerchiefs,

We did not even hear the siren.


 

From a dream: maybe a timber camp

Look up from the table

At which you are seated

At the figure standing there

Before you, dark in the door,

His feet in sodden boots,

Snow melting in a pool

On a wooden floor

He stands—unspeaking—

Maybe awaiting orders

Or bringing news on a piece

Of paper that’s limp in his hands.

Who knows? Next frame:

He’s just a voice now,

One among those of other men,

Easy in the way water rejoins water.

It’s the day you’ll remember—

A cold, blue light

Illuminating him from below

And with it all the silence,

The antiseptic smell, the clean, aching desolation

Of a country deep in freshly-fallen snow