Elly McDonald

Writer


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Throne of the Caesars: Iron & Rust by Harry Sidebottom

iron-rust-harry-sidebottom

Iron & Rust is the first of Harry Sidebottom’s planned trilogy Throne of the Caesars and is quite different in tone and ambition to his Warrior of Rome series. The Warrior of Rome novels are earthy, exciting, frequently funny and filled with engaging characters. Iron & Rust is grander in scale and more emotionally distanced, dissecting power politics at the highest level. It’s a study in power – why it’s desired, how it’s achieved, how it might be held. The characters are not loveable and function like chess pieces. Their machinations are appalling – sometimes desperate, sometimes pathetic – and what is at stake is not simply power but survival. Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; no place of safety. These players cannot choose to remove themselves from the game.

Is it entertaining? Yes indeed. But it’s not a light read. It’s information-dense, with surprising, sometimes startling, insights into how people thought and behaved in the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century C.E. It’s thoughtful about politics and philosophy. It’s very well-written, which is not always the case within this genre. I enjoyed the second book of this trilogy, Blood & Steel, better than Iron & Rust; I think the pacing and characterization gain confidence. But Iron & Rust is extremely interesting and sets up the trilogy well.

Highly recommended.


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Wolves of the North by Harry Sidebottom

wolves-of-the-north

Wolves of the North is my favorite novel so far in Harry Sidebottom’s excellent Warrior of Rome series. This time, the central character Ballista and his posse, his familia, venture out into what was for me – and I suspect for most readers – uncharted territories. Prior to reading Wolves of the North I knew next to nothing about the Goth tribes living on the steppes of the Caucasus in the 3rd century C.E., and next to nothing about the Hun tribes in what is now eastern Europe. Reading about the Heruli, the Urugundi and the Alani tribes was like reading science fiction or action-fantasy (like GoT’s Dothraki).

The author seemed to be having fun imagining our small group of Romans into this hostile and very alien environment. He also had fun playing with genre, weaving a serial killer whodunnit sub-plot into his action adventure.

I found this book immensely entertaining, maintaining the high standard of the previous four Warrior of Rome installments but shaking up the formula. I look forward to Ballista’s further adventures.


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The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom

amber-road

Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series is superior historical fiction, conspicuously well-written and exceptionally well-researched. I’ve loved all six novels in the series so far and this latest did not disappoint. In The Amber Road, the central character Ballista is sent on a political mission to his childhood home in northern Germania. Ballista is a younger son of an Angle warlord but his welcome is uncertain. A hostage in Rome in his teens, he has spent the 20 or so years since in Rome’s service as a senior military commander. Where do his loyalties lie? Which identity will prove stronger, the Romanized ‘Ballista’ or the Angle ‘Dernhelm’?

Ballista/Dernhelm and his companions are beset with physical dangers but for Ballista, perhaps the deadliest threats are embedded in unresolved family and intimate relationships from the past. Can he survive? Can he even see what’s staring straight at him?


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The Caspian Gates by Harry Sidebottom

caspian-gates

The Caspian Gates is the fourth novel in Harry Sidebottom’s outstanding historical fiction series Warrior of Rome, set in the turbulent 3rd Century C.E. Although the series has consistent elements, it avoids being overly formulaic; it’s as if with each instalment the author sets himself the challenge of incorporating something different and distinctive.

Consequently, in The Caspian Gates readers can expect the characters to be familiar friends, the Angle-born Roman military commander Ballista and his ‘familia’. They can expect the meticulous attention to place – geographical features, topology, climate conditions. They can expect to be introduced to at least one culture most of us will find exotic – in this case, the kingdom of Suania, the Caucasus region now known as Georgia. They can expect that the narrative will be driven once again by Ballista and his familia being sent on a perilous political mission.

What they might not expect is that The Caspian Gates is, simultaneously, a reworking of the ancient Greek legend of Jason and Medea: Jason being the leader of the famed Argonauts, in quest of the Golden Fleece; Medea being his sometime lover turned harpy. The lands Ballista travels through in The Caspian Gates are infused with mythic ‘memories’ of Jason and Medea. Ballista is about to find out that the past is never really past.

Harry Sidebottom writes so well, and so intelligently, that reading these books is a pleasure. Yes, Ballista behaves badly in this tale. But we really wouldn’t want him to be predictable. Would we?


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Shadow and Dust (short story) by Harry Sidebottom

african-desert

Picture this: battle lines are drawn – it could go either way. Nothing goes to plan. You – in the guise of a Roman special forces’ scout – hurtle through lethal challenges towards whatever end Fortuna decrees.

Harry Sidebottom’s short story Shadow and Dust is a narrative offshoot of Blood and Steel, the second novel in his Throne of the Caesars series. It precedes his latest novel Fire and Sword. The action is set in North Africa in the tumultuous 3rd Century Roman Empire and in moments of respite Sidebottom’s characters reflect on the pros, cons and consequences of empire in terms relevant to contemporary politics.

For readers like myself, who are not military history buffs or re-enactors, the initial descriptions of how battle forces are arrayed are slightly confronting (but I have trouble telling left from right). Once the set-piece strategies break down the tale is unfailingly tense, gripping – and fast. It’s a tribute to Sidebottom’s storytelling skills that his characterisations are as strong as the action.

The ending packed a punch. I found the epitaph – an actual historical inscription – moving.


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Ancient Warfare: A very short introduction by Harry Sidebottom

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Accurately subtitled “A Very Short Introduction’, Ancient Warfare is ambitious in that it attempts to summarize a range of academic perspectives and to critique their main premises. This makes for a genuinely helpful overview for students new to the formal study of warfare in the Classical worlds of Rome and Greece. The first four chapters do assume some ability to engage with academic theory but general readers will find the writing accessible. The final three chapters – including chapters on ‘Strategy’ and ‘Fighting’ – are enthralling.

The Further Reading list at the back of the book is an invitation to explore in more depth how different historians have interpreted Classical warfare; I found the diagrams, reproduced art and Chronology useful too.


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Silence & Lies (short story) by Harry Sidebottom

silence-lies

Readers of Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars series will already be familiar with Castricius, an enigmatic and oddly sympathetic sociopath referred to in Silence & Lies as “the knife boy”. Silence & Lies allows us some insight into part of Castricius’ personal history and leaves us with as many questions as it answers. With the release of the third Throne of the Caesars novel, Fire and Sword, we may learn more.

Castricius is the perfect character through whom to explore issues of secrecy, identity, mutability, espionage and evasion. Sidebottom explicitly pays tribute to a familiar pulp fiction genre – the sheriff in pursuit of an escaped outlaw – and does not neglect the action side, but here he is largely concerned to investigate character and philosophy.

A striking hallmark of Sidebottom’s novels is the sense that despite the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century being geographically vast, there is little leeway for a fugitive to lay low – places to run, maybe, but nowhere to hide, nowhere to claim safety. This short story addresses this head-on.

Castricius might think he can shed one skin and transmute. But can he?


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Throne of the Caesars: Fire and Sword by Harry Sidebottom

fire-sword

Fire and Sword is the concluding novel of the Throne of the Caesars trilogy – although as I felt compelled to google the historical narratives of its real life characters afterwards, I hope author Harry Sidebottom might one day get around to writing sequels, if only in short story form. I loved the short stories he’s written to “bridge” the second part, Blood and Steel, and this third novel; the short stories are currently only available online, so if further short stories are added perhaps there’ll be enough for a hard copy volume.

As you’d expect from Sidebottom, an Oxford academic who specializes in ancient warfare and the Hellenistic influence within the Roman Empire, Fire and Sword is a riveting reconstruction of 3rd century Rome. Unobtrusively yet authoritatively, extensive research serves as the foundation for all depictions here of locations (terrains and town layouts), garments, foods, transport, historical personalities, politics and characters’ worldviews. But the trilogy is an epic of imagination, too: records of the politics and political players in this drama are unreliable and incomplete, so Sidebottom has to a large extent extrapolated personalities and inferred backroom events from scant sources.

The characters he’s `created’ are engaging, although it did take me a little while to reorient myself to who is whom and where we were in terms of where the plot picks up from the previous books and stories. The plot moves fast, much faster than in the first novel Iron and Rust. I was a little worried by the introduction of a caped bandit king early on, who I suspected might prefigure a bodice-ripper subplot, and I hope it’s not a spoiler to say Sidebottom, thankfully, had other purposes for this character.

As well as concluding the Throne of the Caesars trilogy, Fire and Sword is a kind of prequel to Harry Sidebottom’s popular Warrior of Rome series, and introduces Warrior of Rome’s main character, the Saxon hostage prince Dernhelm a.k.a Marcus Clodius Ballista. Even as a young teenager Dernhelm’s thought processes are recognizably those of his adult self as readers have come to know him through the six novels so far in the Warrior of Rome series. Sidebottom has more Ballista novels planned, and readers who love Ballista and his familia, his close cohort, will welcome both Dernhelm’s appearance in Fire and Sword and also future tales of his travels and travails 25 years later.


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Conquest Trilogy: Shieldwall (2011) by Justin Hill

shieldwall-justin-hillShieldwall is a welcome surprise. It’s a serious – and successful – attempt at telling the hero tale of Godwin, father of Harold, last Anglo-Saxon king of England, in a style that’s consciously, but not crudely, an homage to the genre of Germanic heroic lay. It’s elegiac, lyrical, grand, high-minded; centrally concerned with honour and male friendship, fathers and sons, duty, war and death.

There’s a lot on the historic record about Godwin, mostly about his adult life. We know he was an Anglo-Saxon magnate of extraordinary wealth and power, right-hand man in England to King Knut the Great, the Danish King of Denmark, Norway and England. We know he was over-endowed with sons who proved troublesome even by C11th standards. We know he came from relatively humble beginnings, a thegn’s son, and was a pubescent hostage in the court of King Ethelred the Unrede, who exiled Godwin’s father.

History however is written by the winners, and three of Godwin’s sons, including King Harold, were killed at the Battle of Hastings when Duke William of Normandy won his cognomen William the Conqueror. Understandably, chroniclers in the Anglo-Norman period were not kind to Godwin, damning his and his dynasty’s ambition. About how Godwin rose to such heights in the first instance, gaining Knut’s trust, we know little, although we can surmise he was indeed ambitious. Given the violent and uncertain politics of the period, he was also almost certainly outstandingly able, intelligent, and brave. He very likely demonstrated qualities Anglo-Saxons admired and respected: a war-leader, a man of his word, loyal to his king, a just man (within the understandings of ‘justice’ of the time).

[When I say “we”, I am inviting you to agree with me, and I should admit now I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon England. I do have an academic background in Early Medieval Celtic Literature, and Brythonic Literature, and a reader’s appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon period.]

Justin Hill represents the youthful Godwin in precisely these positive terms. The historic Godwin was likely brutal, ruthless, and feared, not only by his enemies; we see less of this aspect in Hill’s young Godwin. Hill’s Godwin is purely hero.

Arguably, though, the true hero of Shieldwall is less Godwin than the king Hill assigns him as blood-brother and soul-mate, the Anglo-Saxon king who proceeded Knut: Edmund Ironside. The Godwin of Shieldwall may be the adornment, the setting, that better shows off the ‘jewel in the crown’, the young Edmund. Almost forgotten in the popular imagination, Edmund’s life is as courageous as Alfred the Great’s, and well deserves to be retold now.

Some novels within the contemporary genre of Viking and Anglo-Saxon stories are gratuitously and sadistically violent, and violently misogynist. Hill’s tale doesn’t shy away from strong violence, and the extended battle sequences are informed by forensic research on wound marks on skeletons of men killed in early medieval battles. But he doesn’t indulge in the almost pornographic dwelling on brutality that some authors do. (Of course, some authors might argue that the world of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was irredeemably violent and misogynist; I reply, an author chooses the world they write.) Although he depicts an earthy milieu, his nobles admire their noble wives, sometimes even love their sex slaves, and treat their dependents decently.

We know peasants – and slaves – suffered severely. Hill introduces characters intended to represent the experiences of the poor and powerless, and some of these characters die base deaths. But the nature of the heroic lay is that it memorializes a hero, high-born, and is aristocratic. Its focus is the lives, loyalties, betrayals and deaths of men who wield swords with precious hilts and who wear armbands gifted by their lord, who sing sad songs of the deaths of kings.

I loved Shieldwall. Can’t wait to read the next two novels in Justin Hill’s trilogy.


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Conquest Trilogy: Viking Fire (2016) by Justin Hill

viking-fire-justin-hill-elly-mcdonald-writer

Harald Hardrada’s true-life story is epic. Parts of it are recorded in a range of historical sources, including Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Harald Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”), and all of it is extraordinary, larger than life, as was the man, famously described as “taller than most men” and therefore requiring a larger burial plot.

It’s an epic that cries out to be told and re-told.

Viking Fire tells Harald Sigurdsson’s story for contemporary readers. It’s the second novel in Justin Hill’s Conquest Trilogy, which began with Shieldwall (also excellent).

I first met Harald Hardrada through another historical fiction trilogy, about a different – and fictional – Viking named Harald Sigurdson (sic): Henry Treece’s Viking Dawn, The Road to Miklagard, Viking Sunset. Reading Treece’s Viking Trilogy as a child in the 60s led me to Treece’s fictions Last of the Vikings and Swords from the North, both about Hardrada.

More recently I’ve re-traced Viking voyages from the frozen north through Rus through Pecheneg lands to Byzantium with Robert Low’s Orm and his men, in the Oathsworn series, starting with The Whale Road. Orm’s journey is a descent into darkness: savage, nihilistic.

Justin Hill charts similar geographical territory in his life of Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway – Harald Hardrada, Last of the Vikings – but Hill’s novel has a different project. Framed as if recounted by a Saxon archbishop, as told to him by Harald, it’s ambitious and literary and seeks to situate Harald historically as a ruler with wide experience of the known world’s great powers, a Christian king who recognizes the need for the peoples of the North to transition from raiding and subsistence agrarian communities to trading-based economies with centralized institutions and a literate administrative class.

Hill suggests that had Harald (rather than William) succeeded in conquering England in 1066, England might have remained part of a Scandinavian sphere post-Knut, with its Saxon and Dane traditions respected and evolving to meet the needs of a new epoch. Instead, the Normans led by William defeated Harold Godwinsson at Hastings, the Harrowing devastated English lands, Saxon elites were destroyed or absorbed through marriages, Norman institutions were imposed, and Anglo-Norman England became a domain of mainland western Europe, its history for the next 500 years (or more) inextricably and bloodily entwined with that of the French kingdoms.

Ealdred the Archbishop writes: “For a king more famous for his prowess as a warrior, I expected a bluff and ill-educated man, but I was surprised. He talked expansively of his life, and he was not the brute that we had feared. He was learned, and wise, and had not wasted his time among the Greeks.”

Indeedy. As ‘Araltes’ the Varanger (a bodyguard to Emperor Michael IV), Harald played a key role in the bloody politics of C11th Byzantium, travelled in the Emperor’s service to Jerusalem, and fought in Sicily and the Italian peninsula. He amassed a fortune, enabling him to return in style to Norway, which he’d left as a 15 year old fugitive from the Battle of Stiklestad, where his half-brother King Olaf (St Olav) was killed.

It’s an astonishing life narrative that seems to argue that which doesn’t kill makes stronger. Or that fortune favours the bold. Or simply that being smart and strong and brave and lucky is a winning combination.

Justin Hill tells Harald’s tale superbly. His writing here is confident and entirely effective.

I particularly like that Hill allows his women characters dignity. There are serving women, nursemaids, empresses, queens, sex partners, wives and mothers – but he’s made the effort to acknowledge each, to create characters, and not to exploit them pornographically. Yes, women in this period were often sexually exploited, sexually abused; but women also had respected roles, sometimes important roles, and as individuals were loved and admired, as sex partners, wives, mothers, daughters and sisters have been often, throughout the ages. Reading other Viking novels we might sometimes forget this.

Read Viking Fire. Read Shieldwall. Read the third novel in the trilogy, when it comes out.

On a personal note, as I write this, and as I read this novel, I am nursing my father in his last days. Justin Hill’s novel plucked me out of my small world, and took me somewhere else. Thank you for that.


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After viewing Philippe Mora’s film Monsieur Mayonnaise (2016)

Monsieur Mayonnaise: Philippe Mora’s colour-saturated documentary/memoir/graphic novel/cartoon about how his parents Georges and Mirka survived the Holocaust to introduce European bohemian culture to post-War Melbourne, Australia.

And how Gunther Morawski became Georges Morand then Mora then Monsieur Mayonnaise then Georges Mora; or, how Gunther Morawski became a Resistance hero, father substitute to Jewish war orphans, people smuggler, and impersonator of Catholic nuns (in company with best mate Marcel Marceau).

Some of my responses:- with apologies to Philippe Mora and his family for details I’ve recalled wrongly or that should have been included but are not. I hope the Mora family will forgive me for borrowing some of their images and artwork for this blog.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see Monsieur Mayonnaise this response might be best read AFTER viewing. On the other hand, it’s the Holocaust – you know how that unfolded. Don’t you?]

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-book-burning

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

One morning Leon Zelik left his Paris apartment to buy a newspaper. While he was out, soldiers arrived and took his wife and his three daughters, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome.

The women were herded onto a train along with 1000 other Jews, mostly women and children. They were terrified. As the train rattled along, Mme Zelik and Mirka, her eldest daughter, peered through the wooden slats of their crate-carriage, strained to identify signage at train stations they passed.

The mother had had the presence of mind to grab a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope from their apartment as they were taken. Now, she wrote the names of each train station in sequence. She folded the page into the unstamped envelope, which she addressed to her husband, Leon Zelik, at their street address.

She directed Mirka to drop the sealed envelope through the crate cracks as the train slowed. Mirka was frightened it would blow back onto the tracks.

They were disembarked at a massive holding centre. Four days before their contingent were scheduled to be shunted to Auschwitz, guards came and released them. As Mirka looked back towards the camp she saw the other detainees crowded against the fences, the children big-eyed, watching the Zelik family retreat to freedom.

In later years Mirka said the big eyes in the faces of the doomed children were the genesis of the angel children she painted throughout her life. She said the guilt pained her. Telling this, she cried.

Someone had found the addressed envelope, stamped it, and mailed it to Leon in Paris. From the list of train stations, Leon worked out the camp where his family were held. He convinced a clothing manufacturer to request that the Zelik women be released on the grounds that the mother was a required worker manufacturing German army uniforms. A lie, but it worked.

In later years, Mirka thanked that anonymous person who found her mother’s letter, every day, life long.

Mme Zelik, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome were the only survivors of the Jewish detainees on that transport. I have/had a mental blank on The Mother’s name. Wiki says she’s “Celia (Suzanne)” but in his film Philippe Mora refers to her by what I think must be a Lithuanian petname or diminutive.

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora-with-angel-children

Mirka Mora with angel children

There’s a sequel: by chance Leon met a French farm worker, a Christian, who offered the Zelik family sanctuary. In his village was a house locked up while its owner was a prisoner of war. The Zeliks spent 2 1/2 years there. The Frenchman’s daughter says her father never questioned that providing sanctuary was the right – the only – thing to do.

I won’t recount Georges story here. I can’t get his story out of my mind, and have been telling it to almost everyone I meet. But every time I tell it, I cry, and the people I tell it to cry too.

Suffice to say there’s a 92 y.o man on film who says he became an eminent New York child psychiatrist because Mora and his Resistance colleagues saved his life, because Mora cared, and because he wanted to be like Mora: to save children. Even if it meant dressing up as a nun and trekking Jewish war orphans to the Swiss frontier, a la The Sound of Music. In company with the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (No, even in New York none of this is required of child psychiatrists. This is what French Resistance operative code-name Mora did.)

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Georges Mora clips his son Philippe’s hair

In Philippe Mora’s film he visits a museum memorializing child victims of the Holocaust deported from France (not the famous Holocaust Museum in the States – I googled but could not identify this museum). The interior walls seem to be lit with a low golden glow and have what appear to be timber vertical divides and, less prominent, horizontal divides, so that the walls suggest a panel of spaces for portraits or icons. Many of the spaces are filled by photographs of children who died, with their name and (I think) age. The spaces left empty are ones where no photograph has been located. I believe in this museum there are 6000 framed spaces.

Aesthetically it’s beautiful. Emotionally, it’s devastating.

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Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history is vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

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George Mora. Monsieur Mayonnaise.

My friend Donna says, “I was married into a Jewish family for 32 years. The matriarch pulled the address labels off of every magazine that came to the house (the goyim see the name and know that is a Jewish household), and no one talked about illnesses or diseases except in very hushed voices (the government takes the weak first)… that was not uncommon in the WWII generation, but they are slowly dying off, and the younger folks have no idea..”

“George Mora’s” two sons had no idea he was really Gunther Morawitz, German-born, medical student at Leipzig University, native German speaker, until his last years; and no idea why he wouldn’t step into a VW or Mercedes-Benz or use Krupp appliances.

When I was at school I had teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Exposure to first-hand witnesses is invaluable. We’re losing them.

Remembering snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora

 

 


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Old Angus (1984)

Every Sunday, he used to stand by the front window and yell abuse at churchgoers. Sometimes he stood on the lawn and shook his fist at them. Directly across the road, a small Roman Catholic church lies meek in the face of aggression, its whitewashed walls shadowed by an Anglican cathedral towering alongside. Old Angus has no interest in the Anglican cathedral; his fight is with the Roman Catholic god.

He knows he’s losing. After a twenty year battle he’s all but yielded sight; now, his being is demanded. Knowing he’s dying, Old Angus resents it. He rages. For hours he debates unhearing politicians – they on radio and television, he in his solid, ancient bed. A spent force, he is unforgiving.

“I’m ninety”, he tells Young Angus. “If I were a cricketer, I’d have to say I’d had a good innings.”

Not being a cricketer, he doesn’t believe it.

Young Angus sits by his bedside and worries, caring so much he can barely listen.

“D’you remember”, says Old Angus, “That tale about Johnny? How you used to tell me about your girls?”

Young Angus, tired, looks blank.

“You remember, lad? I’d laugh at you. You know the one. In Scotland, the son would come to his dad and say ‘Dad, I’ve found me a perfect lass’. ‘Aye, aye, Johnny?’ the dad would say. ‘Father, I mean to ask her to marry me!’ Johnny tells his dad, and his dad says ‘Aye?’ Maybe she won’t have me’ worries the son, and ‘Aye’, says the dad, ‘Aye, aye’… You remember, lad?”

“Oh, aye”, Young Angus reassures him, truthfully. “I wanted to marry Beth, and you told me about Johnny. I’m glad you never told me what to do.”

“I thought you’d be disappointed again”, Old Angus sighs, shifting uncomfortably in his sheets. “I thought she’d be scared away by Laura. I though maybe Evie might scare her away.”

“Evie never scared anyone but you”, Young Angus reproves him, rearranging the bed clothes.

In the other bedroom, Beth is dying Emma’s hair with Laura looking on. Emma’s triple image, reflected in an old, three-way mirror, commands all eyes. The girl herself perches stiffly on the bed, her self-conscious, fifteen year-old body stretched regal and long. A scheming princess, arrogant neck destined for the block, she notes with satisfaction the way her hair rests in damp curls, piled up away from her face. (Emma, immersed in vanity’s haze, recalls an incident from early childhood, taunting as she yanked a playmate’s pigtail: “I have hair like a princess”, sneered Emma, “And you have hair like a rat’s tail!” Soon after, her blonde began to darken. Old Angus, gazing down from his superior height and seeing only nutmeg, had tussled the strands, saying “Never mind, lass – not every princess has golden curls”.)

“You look lovely!” grins Laura, and Beth beams back at her. Emma, coppoer-brown and all but naked in sheer underclothes, says nothing.

“Here”, says Beth. “Throw on a dress and go in and show Old Angus.”

Old Angus guesses at Emma’s dislike. The young, he reflects, would prefer not to have to acknowledge old age. Emma shouldn’t have to confront death yet.

“You look just like Evie”, Old Angus tells Emma, who momentarily feels insult and fright. Evie, to her, is a mystery madwoman only referred to in furtive whispers. Emma juts her chin.

“Evie was your age when I first saw her”, Old Angus recalls, disregarding the distance between this child and him. “She was fourteen, and I thought she was beautiful. The boss’s daughter, you know? I had to sweep the shop and the verandah, and I’d loiter outside, waiting to see her come home from school. her father couldn’t stand me.”

Emma remains silent, but she’s listening.

“Well, what was I but trash? And Catholic, too! We were shanty types – Scottish Catholics, and fifteen kids! We lived in a riverside shack that flooded when it rained. We’d eat the fish left tangled in the furniture. We couldn’t read or write. Or the others couldn’t, anyway…

“But I wanted more, and I wanted Evie. She was a dream, that girl! A beautiful, round-faced, round-eyed dream. By that time I owned a store of my own.”

He smiles across at Emma, and reaches out his hand. She takes it awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

“He’s telling you about Evie?” asks Beth, balancing a laden tray as she pushes through the door.

“I was telling her how we first started out, before Laura”, Old Angus says. “Her whole family was against us marrying, but she always had a will, had Evie. I remember years later when we got that car. A terrible contraption, a car – it had me beat, alright! But Evie, she was determined to master it. She took it down to the paddock behind the house (this was when we still had the old place), and she forced that thing to work the way she wanted. It fought! It ran amok all over the croquet lawn. But she got the better of it, finally, and it never gave her a problem again.”

“Yes”, Beth smiles, seating herself beside him and carefully handing him a mug of warmed milk. “Yes, Evie was a brave one.”

“Aye”, says Old Angus, meeting her eyes quickly. “She was brave. She was brave with Laura. It wasn’t like she had a soul on her side.”

“Tell me”, Emma Frances demands. Her initials are E.F.M/, like her grandmother’s were.

“About Laura?” asks Old Angus, spilling some milk down his chin. Beth gently mops his neck with a tissue, mentally dismayed at how fragile his skin is.

“Better not”, Beth cautions, quietly.

“Why not?” The old man turns on her. “Why not let her know? I’m not ashamed of Evie. She was worth a dozen of any other person I ever met.”

“Go on, then”, Beth sighs, and he hunches over his mug, cloudy-eyed stare trained on Emma.

“She was, you know”, he nods. “She was worth a damn sight more than what she got. It’s not Laura’s fault. Laura was born a normal child. It was illness that did it. Illness and doctors. First polio, then meningitis. They put her in plaster. Imagine a child’s legs locked away in plaster, for a whole year! They said it would stop them trembling.

“She trembled worse, and her legs were so stunted she could hardly walk. Couldn’t talk properly either. And something happened to her brain.

“Well, you know country towns, and it was worse back then. People round here didn’t understand. They said Laura being struck down was an act of God, that Evie and I had brought it on our child. They said Evie and I must be to blame. Said it was Evie, acting like a man. Too forward, they said; too bloody ambitious.

“She’d dived into politics, Evie-style. Talking feminism, socialism… ‘isms’ we’d never heard of till then. She aimed to be a town councillor, and women could vote here in South Australia, so she wouldn’t let anyone tell her what was what. Unnatural, they said. The children of bad mothers always come to harm; bad mothers like Evie deserve it.”

“That’s not true”, protests Emma, and Beth – taking in her city-bred, modern daughter – wonders if Emma will develop into someone Beth can point to proudly and boast “Yes, that is the child I deserve”.

“The Church believed it”, Old Angus glowers. His hands shake, and milk splashes. “Laura wasn’t allowed to attend mass. They said she was simple, and couldn’t understand. Like she was a dumb animal. So, that was it between the Church and Evie, for all she’d tried so hard to fit in with those women. She’d worked herself to rags on their goddam charities…

“Restaurants, too – they said Laura and her trembles turned people’s stomachs. The said it wasn’t right to feed her in public, the way she slobbers and sometimes spills her food. But she wasn’t any worse than someone old, and I’m still a person, aren’t I?”

Beth takes the mug from Old Angus’s grasp. There are tears of frustration in his clouded eyes, frustration unexhausted after sixty years.

“It’s okay, Dad”, Beth reassures him. “We’ll always look after her.”

“I gave Evie a rough time”, Old Angus continues, trying to wipe his eyes on a pyjama sleeve. “She was hurt, you know. It made her strange. She got so odd, so set in her ways! She was always stubborn, always fighting. I remember when she found my whisky supply – I’d hidden it in the woodshed, ‘cos she wouldn’t have alcohol in the house. I could have killed her. I nearly did! I chased her all around with a knife for twenty minutes, and Young Angus hid up in the big tree and cried.”

“Young Angus thinks the world of you”, says Beth.

“He was a joy, that one.” Old Angus smiles fondly towards the open window. “When we still had the big house, I used to dress up as Father Christmas every year for the town pageant. All the children would climb on my knee and tell me what presents they were angling after. Young Angus clambers up and whispers he’s hoping for a big hunting knife, for when he goes rabbiting with his uncle Jock. Well, says I, I reckon your dad might decide a hunting knife’s too big for a small boy. Young Angus, he looks at me. ‘You look like my dad’, he frowns, ‘But my Daddy would give me what I want’. And bless him, I did. I always did. We spoil the fruits of our old age.”

That night, Young Angus keeps Old Angus company. Quiet pervades the room.

“How do you want to go, Dad?” Young Angus asks his father, low-voiced.

“I don’t want to go at all”, Old Angus snaps back, somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“No, Dad, I didn’t mean it that way. The old ones in the family are planning the funeral. They want to know if you’ll do it Church or not.”

“Which church?” Old Angus glares.

“Dad, don’t make it hard for me. They want to see you reconciled. They want to see you return to the faith.”

“I’ll not return till they give me back my Evie, and that won’t happen in this world.” A fierce old man, blind and sunken-faced. He considers a moment, then asks more kindly “What seems best to you, lad?”

“I don’t know, Dad. There must be a compromise.”

Old Angus and Young Angus sit shoulder to shoulder, the old man supported by a pile of pillows. Suddenly Old Angus laughs.

“Yes!” he chuckles. “There’s a compromise of sorts. Next to the church, there’s that new cathedral – the C-of-E number. If we book me in there, we can ring our funeral bells all through their mass, and hold up the pious with our funeral procession! If we’re canny, we can clog up their carpark with our mourners’ carss. That’s having it both ways! Can you do it for me, lad? Can you fix ‘em?”

Young Angus would do, could do anything. He kisses the damp flesh of the old man’s head.

“Aye, aye”, says Young Angus, and hugs his father.

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