Ian C Smith – Life is a Camel, The Movie in My Mind, & Stitched Up

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Prole, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

 

 

Life is a Camel

His admiration of Myron’s athletic sculpture, Discobulus, is foreshadowed by a photo in his father’s sports pages of the previous night’s stoush, Dick Turpin, a namesake of the colourful highwayman he had heard of, boxing Albert Finch for the British title, a ‘bruising affair’ won by Finch ‘unanimously’ – a word to puzzle over – on points.

In the sports annual inside a pillowslip on his bedpost on Christmas morning he pores over more photos; colours, names of football teams, enthralling: dazzling green and white hoops of Glasgow Celtic, black and old gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers – Wolves. He yearns for a resplendent uniform, to be portrayed in action, wants to be a sports photographer. Or a sailor.

In a rage to live he is greedy for the starburst of sideshow alley, each illuminated inch of what is gimcrack, ersatz, winning a gypsy prize playing an electronic horseracing game at Epsom. Derby Day. Rae ‘Togo’ Johnstone, an Australian, kicks home the big winner, a French horse, crowd roaring as if outraged as he tries to see through a forest of grey flannels. Intrigued by Togo, emblazoned jockey’s silks, aware of different nationalities, he wonders about names, places: the Gold Coast, Siam, Tibet, Hawaii, Formosa, Alaska, Newfoundland. Words. Colours rippling before a field of acid green. Sportsmen of the world. That great roar.

After weathered storm surges of half a lifetime when only fragments of remembered happiness glint like pinpricks of light in a black sky; school’s brutal ritual, the terrible churn of family havoc, youth detention, factory, foundry fodder’s hamster on a wheel calamity going down, down in a cascade of suffering to psychiatric assessment, marriage shattered, tertiary study beckons from beyond chaos. Then life opens up like his books’ pages, travel to lands with different names now, the arts unfurling. He still follows some sports, albeit with measured cynicism. Walking at dawn past a circus encampment, mulling, stars subbed out, he recalls the joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee, thinks life, that bruising affair, is a camel.

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The Movie in My Mind

Exiting the M6 for Liverpool, January, 1984, thankful for the heater in my tin can car bought to stretch travel costs, I felt like a film noir private eye searching for this mysterious disappeared dame, Molly, my aunt who dumped her husband during WW2, with two small children in tow, and a past.

With a twenty-year old address from the Records Office, a marriage of one of her children, surnames unusual, I plodded door-to-door, sky a thin wash, those acrid streets stained by Thatcherism, shuttered shops, rubbish desperately clinging to fences, wind, prospects, bitter, but kind folk listened, my tale, Aussie accent, fogged breath, the idea of a quest, igniting tiny sparks.

About the time of my teenage cousin’s marriage that mirrored my first I quit smoking, but still liked a drink, so pub-crawling together, bursting into swaying song, the bandage of sore people, all smoking, building the screenplay of my imagination in that coarse, hoarse atmosphere where nobody walked alone I pictured myself played by Albert Finney as a bipolar yet cool ambitious wit, not a self-indulgent interloper.

The screenplay stillborn, my research did spawn an episode of a corny TV programme presented by a raucous scouse pop sweetheart my aunt, now a sweet old dame, secret history intact, liked, resulting in a London rendezvous for ageing family members, their struggles glossed over.

Dreams behind me now, hours still, as in a mortuary, a review of a movie set in Liverpool in the 1980s transports me to headstrong days when my cousin slept at his girlfriend’s, vacating his little flat for me, the scald of that land of drama and conflict, a time of big ideas, of hope propelling us into those dreams.

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Stitched Up

No happy hearths for us. In the slowness of days while the lights of cities go on and off we work the dormitories for cigarettes, currency of the convicted, minor industries thriving in this chapel of corruption, regulations our enemy.

Dickie, who has already boxed in the tents, skin, features, gravelly pronunciation harbouring a vestige of his downtrodden people’s true Australian tongue, contrasts with me, my skin pale, pimply, much taller, less brave, both adrift in the undertow of a treacherous tide, surviving.

Alert to venomous prejudice of outsiders, incomers, the disabled, the different, flotsam washed up on these isolated shores, my speech, London’s foggy guttural erased, sets up the entertainment, a ringmaster’s spiel to those whose lives have been fistfuls of pain, redemption a haven too far.

If we feign placidity supervision is soft between grub and lights out at nine. After each boy hands over tobacco I thread a needle, cotton white for dramatic effect – how we came by these humble items for legerdemain beyond me now – before transporting Dickie into his spirit world by muttering great bulldust as he calls it when we are alone together, that odd friendship of cast out boys.

Svengali sentenced, I hush them quiet as night, the only thing missing, a mopoke’s ancient call, hand the needle to Dickie who flutters his black eyelashes, rhythmically whispering the names of racehorses backwards as practised, before opening his mouth wide, bad boys bored no longer, jostling to spot any hanky-panky.

He pierces his plump cheek, a silvery glint emerging through the outside of his expressionless face eliciting disgusted oaths, some demanding he stop, as he pulls the entire shaft trailing cotton through, blood the climax, bright against white, a droplet left on his cheek as I snap my fingers to break the spell, bring him back, to survival, cigarettes.

******

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