Story and Angular Mischief by Warrigal Mirriyuula
As expected Algernon had been released from the district hospital after both Doctors Wardell and Gruber had declared him fit, with the proviso that he keep quiet for at least a week and preferably two. All the cognitive tests had been clear but they were somewhat concerned that his left eye might yet have some trouble. The retina didn’t appear detached but the cornea was scratched and the aqueous appeared to be draining poorly increasing the intraocular pressure.
The doctors agreed that this may be due to the inflammation associated with the main injury. Perhaps the trabecular meshwork was damaged in some way or perhaps just inflamed. Time and rest would put that all right if there were no real structural damage.
Harry had been released too. He was free of pain and passing pee like a champion, his stones for now at least dealt with.
As Harry packed his small battered leather portmanteau with his pyjamas, shaving kit, his transistor radio and other odds and sods, it was obvious to Algernon that he had something on his mind.
Algernon watched quietly as Harry snapped the latches on the port and sat on the edge of his bed, ruminating on something. Algernon, having arrived in the clothes he was injured in had no packing to do. His clothing had all been washed and ironed by the hospital. There was no indication, no dull brown bloodstain, no green smear of rye grass, no rip or repaired tear, no sign at all of what had happened to him. Except that half his head was swathed in bandages and he now sported a fine looking patch over his left eye. Algernon thought of his ute for the first time since Saturday. He had no idea how he was going to get home or even if he could make it home with his head in the shape it was; and what was he going to do about the ute.
Algernon was surprised when Harry suddenly spoke up, his face as serious as Algernon had seen it.
“Algy, I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’. Not always a good sign, as Dotty use’ta say, but I wanna put somethin’ to ya.” Harry stood up and went over to the window to look down onto the little town. “I was a stranger ‘ere when I first came; didn’ know anyone, felt I didn’ fit in.”
Algy began to feel a little uncertain. Harry being serious was a new experience. While it had only been a few days since they’d met and not under entirely fortuitous circumstances, Harry had been implacably upbeat, a joker full of yarns about old Molong and the characters he’d known. Algernon looked intently at the old man wondering what was in store.
The old butcher plunged in. “The Shire’s got ya in one of their flats, right? I bet it’s pokey and hardly worth the subsidy they pay ya, which they keep anyway seein’ as they own the flat.” Harry paused, looked at the floor and pulled a disgruntled face. “Look I’ll jus’ say it. Why doncha come and stay at my place. At least until the docs give ya the all clear. I’ve got that whole house to rattle aroun’ in and I wouldn’ mind the company. We can look after one another while we recover. Whaddaya sayAlgy?”
Algernon certainly hadn’t expected this invitation; and Harry, realising he still hadn’t convinced him took a chance to land the clincher.
“Besides, you need the company too.” Harry looked directly at Algernon, the older man’s face showing the certainty he felt but at the same time masking his meaning.
Algernon didn’t know what to say. The offer was obviously genuinely felt and sincerely offered but Harry was still a stranger really. Amongst the manly advice offered by his father on his departure from Melbourne was an admonition to keep clear of strangers, to stick to your own kind. Well everyone in Molong was a stranger to Algernon. There were none of his own kind, whatever they were. A sudden and unexpected anger rose in Algernon, almost immediately washed away, transmuted into a magnificent sense of potential. Algernon felt his face flush warmly, he felt the first prick of tears, and then found himself laughing. He couldn’t remember laughing since he’d come to Molong.
The only problem with all this was that it set his head to pounding again.
“Ooooh”, he let go, wincing as he went and hugged the old man. “Harry I’d be honoured. I really would.” It was like the chocks had been kicked out from under his life and he had begun to slip into his future. He had no idea why the invitation sounded so attractive, but he had a growing sense of conviction that if he just let go, didn’t try to make everything conform to his ideas, took it a bit easy for a while, he might just be able to work it out, to find a place where he did fit, to discover his own kind for himself.
Harry didn’t quite know what to do or say. This wasn’t quite the reaction he’d expected and he stood stiffly, his arms locked at his sides, his head back a little, while Algernon wrapped his arms around him. A vivid memory of his son setting off on the Cooee March during the Great War filled Harry’s mind.
“Jesus Algy, it isn’ Buckin’am Palace.” Harry said awkwardly as Algernon released him.
“I’d need to get a few things from the flat first, if that’s all right.” For now all thoughts of his ute and his job and his future seemed less important. He could work all that out later.
Yeah, yeah. No worries.” Harry said, carefully putting the memory of his son back into that precious place where he kept his most private things. Harry too felt the prick of tears but it had been a long time. He sniffed once and smiled at the boy, recovering from this flurry of unfamiliar male intimacy, Harry said with a little too much enthusiasm, “Porky’ll be ‘ere with me van soon. We can get ya kit and get ya settled before tea time.”
Sure enough a little while later Porky turned up in Harry’s shiny black Anglia van and parked it under the ambulance awning.
In the back was a hundred weight bag of spuds and Mongrel and The Runt. The dogs jumped out as Porky put Harry’s port in by the bag of spuds. The Runt took off for a quick pee in the garden while Mongrel made a great show of affection for Algernon. Harry got in the passenger seat. Porky helped Algernon into the back of the van where Mongrel joined him, resting his big head in Algernon’s lap as Algernon leant on the spuds. Porky turned and putting his fingers to his mouth, issued a piercing whistle, then “Com’on Butch! Gotta go!”
Porky closed the van doors and went and opened the driver’s door. The Runt jumped in, no hesitation, he was safe here with old MacCafferty and Porky. Mongrel could take care of the bloke in the back.
As Porky hit the ignition The Runt jumped onto his lap and sat there proudly looking over the steering wheel as Porky drove downtown, the windshield wipers slapping back and forth as the Anglia splashed through the potholes that always turned up with the rain.
“Transcendent, Mrs. D, that’s how I’d describe it. Ambrosia fit for Angels! Didn’t you think Karl?” Doc asked without taking his eyes off Mrs. D. Doc held her left hand firmly in both of his, covering her wedding ring and ensuring she couldn’t escape until he had finished lavishing praise on her piquant Spanish lamb roast and spicy vegetables. “A feast fit for kings, and perfectly complimented by Karl’s Gewurztraminer, yes Karl?” Still Doc didn’t look at Gruber, who had been drinking Pilsener anyway. The oddly aromatic German white with its curious tropical fruitiness had been a gift for Doc.
He was almost through with his shtick and Gruber was enjoying this almost as much as Doc. “Did I detect a hint of Juniper berries, and was that, anchovy, just the merest soupcon, as well? So adventurous Mrs. D! So exotic!” Doc gave Mrs. D a positively evil look as though he could eat her on the spot. “And not so easily procured ‘round Molong I’d wager. No wonder the good fathers hold on to you,” he paused and added cryptically, “as they do.” Doc continued, “You’re a magician, a culinary demi urge. A gourmet goddess! Why if your husband wasn’t as big as he is, I’d fight him for you right now.”
Doc smothered Mrs. D in his best most gracious and ingratiating smile. His entire focus on ensuring that Mrs D was completely aware of how well he thought of her cooking.
Mrs. Delahunty might have been floating several inches above the Telegraph dining room floor, saved from drifting completely away by the gentle grip of the doctor’s hands. “You exaggerate Doctor. It was never that good.” she gushed. Though it was obvious to anyone watching that she lived for this. “In honour of Doctor Gruber’s visit I’ve made you both a special strudel for desert.”
Doc’s eyes and mouth suddenly shot open wide. He immediately released her hand and threw his arms and head back. Mrs. D actually stumbled a step as though, having lost Doc’s steadying grip, she was without anything to hold her down.
“Take me now dear Lord. There’s nothing more for me here.” Doc mocked, crucifying himself across the back of his chair. The other diners, those that knew him, unable to miss the all too grandiloquent gesture, just put it down to Doc’s occasional theatricality. The strangers just thought him a bit queer.
It was a sign of the esteem Mrs. Delahunty held Doc in that she didn’t chip him about his taking the Lord’s name in vain. She was a very pious woman. It probably also had something to do with the girlish crush that seemed to consume her whenever she cooked for Doc. She simpered momentarily then said cocquettishly, “I’ll leave you two to enjoy your wine. I’ll bring out the Strudel in a few minutes.”
“Thank you my dear Mrs. Delahunty.” Said Gruber in his perfect but beautifully accented English. “You are truly too kind. I’ll try and gather my garrulous friend back to earth in time to enjoy it.” He smiled at Mrs Delahunty and as she turned to go he gave Doc a big wink. “How was I Albert? Do you think I’ll ever flatter in the first division?”
But Doc was visibly deflating. “You’ve a way to go Karl but I begin to discern the outlines of a champion.” He reached over for the wine bottle. “Sit at the feet of the master and learn the wisdom of the ages.” Doc intoned rather sourly while he poured himself another glass of the Gewurztraminer.
As the golden yellow wine tumbled into the glass, spritzing just ever so slightly, the sparkle that had so recently animated Doc seemed almost gone, as though someone were damping down his sun. This turn around in tone was not lost on his friend. Karl poured himself another glass of Pilsener and sat back in his chair his beer resting on his stomach, his chin almost resting on his chest. Suddenly he shot forward, the beer slopping in his glass. He was almost half way over the table before Doc knew what was going on.
Gruber took a pull from his Pilsener and adopted a rather intimate, conspiratorial tone.
“We’re friends Albert, you and I; much more than just professional friends, more even than boyhood friends simply grown up. We’ve chosen one another, as adults.” Gruber licked the froth from his top lip to fill the pause while he ordered his next thought. “We share a kind of shape, of thinking, of outlook. No matter the differences in our origins and upbringing.” With a quick wave of his hand he dismissed these things as unimportant and gathered himself in his chair, twitching a little from side to side as he warmed to his theme, “we’re objective and rational by training and we share a strong belief in the value and meaning of that training; its ability to help people, make their lives better,” Gruber paused and took hold of his glass of beer with both hands, the beads of chilled sweat gathering between his fingers, a single big drop falling onto the table top and spreading into the clean white linen, “but were still men, ordinary men.”
Gruber paused. How do you say the most important things you’ve got to say to a good friend when you know they aren’t likely to thank you for opening Pandora’s box.
Gruber took heart; that was a misunderstanding, an error. Pandora’s box had actually been a jar, and further; in the classic tale, apart from ills and woes the jar had also released hope. Thinking in metaphors wasn’t always the most illuminating process. In fact it often led to ever darker and more obscure insights that seemed to lack a definable connection to reality.
“If you’ll excuse me, indulge me, as a good friend with only your best interests at heart, I’d like to make this metaphorical observation,” Gruber paused again, then added impishly, “based as it is in my extensive training and experience.” Gruber chuckled a small self-deprecating laugh.
Doc was drawn back from the place he had gone a moment ago. Gruber’s insights were always fascinating, if occasionally uncomfortable.
“You strike me more and more these days like a gambler, slowly running out of winning cards, yet you stay in the game, upping the ante at every deal, risking it all on the next hand; and even when you win, the pot is never big enough.”
Doctor Karl-Lenhard Gruber, resident alien and gifted psychiatrist, good friend to all he met, but particular friend to Doctor Albert Edward Wardell took a quick, short pull on the Pilsener while he devised his punch line.
“Has it occurred to you that you may be playing the wrong game?” Gruber looked directly at Doc, his face impassively immobile hoping that his gambling metaphor hadn’t obscured his meaning.
“Metaphors are slippery buggers of things Karl.” Doc was slumped back in his chair, looking down into his lap. “Say what’s really on your mind. It’s not as if your English isn’t up to the task.”
Karl recognised and acknowledged how similar their thinking was with a quick satisfying “humph”. Seeing beyond his friend’s apparently grumpy reply, he struck out into the unknown and unexplored expanse of his friendship with Albert.
“It’s Alice Berty. For God’s sake man can’t you see she’s in love with you? More importantly why can’t you admit you’re in love with her?”
Doc looked up and across at his friend. He’d always construed Gruber’s past intimacy as the most European expression of his personality. Not exactly Germanic, and certainly not Australian; this desire of his to infiltrate to the very heart of a matter, laying bare all the emotion and thinking involved seemed most alien here in the Central West of New South Wales. Men simply didn’t talk to one another like this.
“So that’s your thinking.” Doc sat up in his chair, his eyes though, once more drifted down into his lap. “It’s not quite that simple Karl; and I’m not sure you’re right about her anyway.” He looked up at his friend. “You should have been there for the dressing down she gave me last Christmas at the hospital party.” Doc’s face showed the incomprehension he still felt at Alice’s reaction that day. “I’d saved a kiddie’s life before it had even begun! No one particularly thinks about the effect these things have on the doctor. I thought I was going to lose him,” Doc leant in on the table and added urgently, “I really did Karl.” He sat back again but kept his eyes fixed on his friend’s. “He was six weeks premi, all kinds of complications. It was the most difficult birth I’ve ever attended. It really shook me. I found myself questioning my ability. I was a wreck afterwards. I’d got the call at the hospital before the party kicked off and when I got back the party was winding down. I drank too much of the appalling punch. Someone must have dropped at least a quart of Gin in it, well a couple of tumblers of that, and then the father had given me a cigar; I don’t normally smoke but what with the Gin and the relief of having been able to bring the little bloke into the world without losing him or his mum. Well I did rather embarrass myself, loudly going on at length about the birth and blowing vast clouds of cigar smoke and gin fumes all over the place.”
Doc shook his head, lost for way to make it all come back together.
“My hat Karl, I’m not some spotty teenager to be chipped about underage drinking, or smoking in the toilets at school. I saved the little bloke’s life! Possibly the mother too! They had to take her, and him, to Orange Base. She was in intensive for a few days. He was in a humidicrib for weeks.” Doc nodded his head to one side a few times as if he still had something terribly important to add but just couldn’t get it out.
“It was a disaster Karl, a monumental disaster!”
Suddenly Mrs. D was there at the table with their strudel. Doc, a little uncertain as to how much of his outburst she had heard, tried slipping back into his former mode but he couldn’t get it off the ground.
“Sorry you had to come in on the end of that Mrs. D,” he said with genuine regret. “Just a couple of medicos tossing around a case.” he covered smoothly.
Mrs. Delahunty could see that Doc was uncomfortable and wondered what the queer German had said to upset him. She put the strudels down on the table and offered them both cream. Both quietly accepted. She poured in silence.
“Well I’m sure you’ll work it out Doctor.” Mrs. Delahunty said as she fixed Gruber with a gimlet-eyed stare that left him no wriggle room. As far as Mrs. D was concerned whatever was wrong at this table, the table of her favourite customer, must be Gruber’s responsibility. Doc was too much a gentleman to bring bad feeling to her dining room.
“We’re men of good will Mrs. Delahunty. We will always find a way.” Gruber offered in an attempt to cool things, but he ended up talking to her back as she walked off to the kitchen. Gruber chuckled quietly as she went. “How big did you say her Husband was Berty? You should hope that he never finds out about her secret passion for you. You might end up fixing your own splints.”
That was it for Doc. He just had to laugh; at his own foolishness, at the unending folly of humankind and the importance we give to silly absurd impossible things; but most of all he laughed with his friend who was right, again.
“You know Berty, this strudel is truly excellent,” Gruber said munching on his dessert, “and the cream, I can’t remember cream like this from before. So rich and thick, flavoursome; this is truly a lucky country.”
“Yes we are Karl. Lucky beyond measuring and you’re one of us now. Another denizen of God’s own little acre.”
Gruber’s eyes sparkled as he pushed another spoonful of crusty pastry and fat fruit all smothered in cream into his mouth.
“I really must get your reading list sorted out Berty. “God’s Acre” was a cemetery, in a Longfellow poem. American I know, but still if you’re going to use metaphors you should at least get them right.” Gruber smiled at his friend.
“Bookish bastard aren’t you Karl.” Doc replied with humour and piled into his strudel too