The red wheelbarrow

I HEARD A growl, deep and low, and then a yelp. I had been lying awake – I always tried to stay awake when Dad was drunk and angry – and when I heard the noise I got out of bed, crossed the hallway and pushed open Mum and Dad's bedroom door. The light was on, and the room looked as if it was shining. Mum and Dad were sitting up in bed, the dark veneer of the bed head framing them from above the waist and the white sheet messed up around their legs. Dad's mouth was smeared with blood. It was on his teeth. He was panting. Mum was looking into her lap, where she was squeezing her left fist with her right hand. I could see her left thumb sticking out, the flesh hanging off and blood streaming down.

She wouldn't let me drive her to the hospital this time. It wasn't bad enough, she said. I got her out of bed, led her into the bathroom and started cleaning the wound with wet clumps of toilet paper. She sat on the tiled edge of the apricot-coloured bathtub in her short nightie, swaying and crying a little. I noticed her breasts under the threadbare cotton of the white nightie, and I saw that her thighs, lean and hairless, were smeared with blood. She was closer to my age than to Dad's. She wiped her nose with her free hand. She had once told me that she had cried on her wedding day at the registry office in Tallinn. Even though Dad was from the country, Mum said, she had been the naive one.

When I'd finished bandaging her thumb, I sat next to her on the tiles around the bath and put my arm around her shoulders. She stopped crying and leaned into me. It was a hot night, and my hand on the skin of her arm soon felt clammy. Even though she was looking into her lap, I could smell the cask wine on her breath. I could see the dried blood on her thighs, and I noticed a line of snot drying on the forefinger of her right hand. I thought about wetting some more toilet paper and wiping it over her thighs. I looked up and saw that the old full-length mirror on the wall opposite was reflecting everything we did.

When I helped her back into bed, the light was still on and Dad was snoring. The blood had dried on the skin around his mouth, and his face was lined and whiskery. Mum smiled up at me from her pillow, pulling the sheet over her breasts to her chin with one hand. ‘Go to bed now, my son,' she said in her accented English. Then she closed her eyes. She had long brown hair. I looked at her for a while longer and then at Dad. The maroon curtains above the bed head had come unhitched from the track in places. I flicked the light switch on my way out.

In bed, staring into the darkness of my room, I started to think about ‘The Red Wheelbarrow'. That day I had been to a first-year lecture on the poetry of William Carlos Williams. The lecturer, an American called Julian Raphael who had thinning hair and wore black-rimmed glasses, had started the lecture by reading in his heavy and careful drawl: ‘So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.'


WHEN HE WAS drunk Dad often said, ‘Every dog has its day.' In the evenings, he would sit at the kitchen table, swallowing the beer straight from one brown longneck after another. Mum drank cask wine out of a tumbler – to keep him company, she said. Sometimes they played canasta as they drank, but typically they just drank. I usually sat in my bedroom, doing homework or watching my old TV. Mum and Dad didn't talk much, but after Dad started to get drunk he liked to repeat phrases. ‘Every dog has its day' was one of them. He also told Mum, ‘You're a slut' and ‘You're an idiot.' As the evenings went on, he tended to get louder until sometimes he was screaming and spitting on the tablecloth. Bottles were smashed down on the old wooden table beneath, or sometimes thrown at the wall or on the floor.

Earlier in the year, when I started my literature degree at university, I looked up the phrase ‘every dog has its day' in a dictionary of literary quotations in the university library and found it attributed to an English book that sounded academic and that I doubted Dad had ever read. I had never seen Dad read. Among the few books that Mum and Dad had in the house were my old Jacaranda atlas from school and two fat English dictionaries. Mum kept them on top of the fridge for when she did the crosswords in the newspaper in the mornings. There was also a set of encyclopaedias that Mum kept stacked behind her shoes in her bedroom cupboard since Dad, one night, had torn some of the pages and covers from their spines.

I thought that the phrase about dogs was probably about revenge, but I didn't know why Dad wanted revenge. I didn't know on whom he wanted revenge. He never spoke about his life in Estonia. I once asked him what it was like to live in a communist country. He said it was like any other life.

Mum told me the stories that her father, a schoolteacher and a widower, had told her about the war: how his father was among the thousands deported to labour camps by the Soviets and never seen again; how the Germans brought in Jews, planning to use the Baltic countries for their extermination plans. Things were already different, Mum said, by the time she was growing up in the 1970s and '80s. When she got her first job, at the Tallinn Central Post Office in 1990, formal independence was only a year off. That's when she met Dad. She fell pregnant, they got married, and then they left for Australia. Her father had died, and she didn't have anything holding her there.

On the mantelpiece in the lounge room there is a photograph of Mum and Dad on their wedding day at the registry office. Dad was already forty years old, but his blond hair is parted to the side, and he is looking at Mum with large eyes. Mum is looking at the camera. She is half his age and beautiful.

There is another photograph on the mantelpiece – the only other one we have of Dad in Estonia – which was taken when he was younger. Dad worked as a mail carrier, and he is wearing the uniform of the Estonian postal worker. He has a crew cut, and he is squinting and pointing a pistol at an unseen target in the surrounding forest. There is a large black dog sitting on the grass next to him with its head raised, and there is a hessian sack on the ground behind.

Mum said that Dad turned on her when they arrived in Australia. She couldn't account for the change. She didn't know much about Dad's life before they met, and she knew little about his childhood. What she did know was that, like her, he was an only child. He had both parents, but his father, Mum said, was often away. She also told me that Dad's upbringing was primitive. She used the word as if it was dirty. He had lived in a house in the woods. He had slept on a mattress filled with hay. During winter, he had shat with the animals in the barn, where it was warm. It had been his job, she told me, to kill chickens for the table.


I HAD A nine o'clock tutorial on William Carlos Williams. When I got up at seven-thirty, Mum and Dad were still asleep. Dad had been unemployed for months. There was a recession, and Dad had been laid off from the stamping plant in Altona.

I could hear Dad's snores as I picked up the bloodied wads of toilet paper that I'd dropped onto the bathroom floor the night before. I wiped drops of blood from the worn vinyl with fresh pieces of toilet paper that I wet under the vanity tap. When I was on my knees, I saw that one drop of blood had a toe print in it that could only be Mum's. She had small feet. I liked to watch her paint her toenails, which she did some evenings after a bath, wearing her white bathrobe and with her hair wound in a towel. She would sit on a kitchen chair, her toes curled over the edge of the wooden table with its checked cloth, and carefully brush red polish on each nail. From the floor of the bathroom, I saw myself in the full-length mirror again. The silver was beginning to corrupt in places.

Raphael was already in the room when I arrived for the tutorial. He was sitting at the front of the room, wearing the thick-lensed glasses that made his eyes look small, flicking through his copy of William Carlos Williams' Selected Poems. His remaining strands of dark hair were oiled and plastered across his head. When I entered, he looked up, said my surname in his thick drawl and nodded. He repeated the ritual for every student who entered the room after me, even the girls, which I always thought was a little impolite.

I sat down in the back row by myself. Brendan was, as usual, running late. When he came in, he sat next to me, punched my arm and then pulled a pen from the pocket of his denim jacket. Raphael tapped his watch and announced that he was starting the class. He told us to organise ourselves into groups of four, and then he began to hand out double-sided photocopies. On one side of the sheet was ‘The Red Wheelbarrow'. Two girls in the row in front of us clumsily shuffled their bags aside with their feet and turned their chairs to face our table. They were wearing too much make-up, I thought. One of them had braces.

‘Are you kidding?' Brendan asked, as Raphael placed four copies of the poem on our desk. ‘You want us to analyse this? What's there to say?' The two girls laughed.

Brendan generally gave his tutors a hard time, and they generally seemed to like him for it. It was impossible to say, though, with Raphael. He waited, and then, looking at Brendan with his small eyes, he said, ‘I am assuming, Morrissey, that you have done your reading.' He adjusted his black glasses. ‘You will know, then,' he drawled, ‘that there are those who have found much to say.'

When Raphael moved on, Brendan grabbed a photocopy and mumbled, ‘Some fuckin' chickens and a wheelbarrow left out in the rain.' He leaned back in his chair and looked at the poem. The girls, hunched into their seats, giggled again.


WHEN I WAS at high school, we had kept a couple of white chickens in a coop in the backyard. Dad had been given the chickens and the coop by an Italian neighbour, an old man who was going back to Sardinia, he said, to die. We generally didn't have much to do with our neighbours. The Italian made his offer to Dad over the high grey paling fence one Saturday afternoon.

Once they were installed in our backyard, the chickens were never let out, and their coop was never cleaned. The floor of the coop, during winter, was mud. I remember, in the evenings, watching Mum, who was frightened of the chickens, throwing in the vegetable peelings that Dad had told her to feed them. She always looked out of place in our unkempt backyard. She wore heels and dresses that she sewed herself at home. My favourite was a white one styled like a safari shirt with a matching belt. She wore it sometimes on the days she did the grocery shopping.

The coop was only metres from my bedroom window. I didn't like the chickens either. It was their noise more than anything: the constant murmuring, the ugly cries. I often had to wear headphones when I was doing my homework.

It was about a year after we got the chickens that Dad decided he would show me how to kill one. With his left hand and foot, he held a squawking and flapping chicken on the old stump he used for chopping wood, and with his right hand he brought down the axe. The chicken's head dropped to the ground and blood spewed from the neck. Dad let go of the chicken, which stumbled, thrashing its wings, and then fell dead. He strung it up by its gnarled feet in the old shed and started ripping out fistfuls of bloodied feathers, which he let drop to the gravel below. His teeth were bared. Dad rarely spoke much, and he didn't say anything then. I looked at the other chicken, now quiet, in the coop. Dad didn't notice when I went inside.

That evening, from my bedroom, I heard yelling in the kitchen. Mum had cooked the carcass in the oven, but she hadn't known to remove its guts. When I went into the kitchen, I saw Dad grab the chicken from the tray on the kitchen bench and hurl it through the swing door of the plastic bin. ‘Idiot,' he cried. He grabbed Mum by the throat as she stood at the sink. He shook her for a few seconds, in silence, then stormed out into the backyard.

I held Mum. I was taller than her by the time I was fifteen. I rubbed her slender back, my palms following her spine beneath her soft dress. She sobbed on my shoulder. I was trying to grow a beard, and I could feel her hair getting caught on my chin. Outside, I heard the surviving chicken begin to shriek.

The girls had each taken a photocopy of the poem, which they held on their laps. They were looking at the poem, but I could tell they weren't even trying. Brendan was looking around the room.

I usually didn't say anything, but I leaned forward to the remaining photocopy on the table and said, ‘There's got to be more to it.' Brendan and the girls looked at me. I shrunk back into my chair. ‘I mean' – my voice was already small – ‘what about the red wheelbarrow? The poem says that everything depends on it.' The girls looked down at their laps. The one with braces began biting her bottom lip. ‘It's all got to mean something,' I said, but I'd already given up.

Brendan slapped his photocopy on the table. ‘Man, let's just say that Williams should have stuck to his day job.' Williams, Raphael had told us in the lecture, was a paediatrician. The girls laughed – too loudly, I thought. Brendan, though, liked blondes.

Because he liked blondes, Brendan came up with the idea of spending three weeks backpacking in Scandinavia during the midyear break. I hadn't wanted to go, but Mum had encouraged me. Dad took my Austudy payments for board, but for years I'd been working for cash on weekends in the bindery of a small printery. I should use those savings, Mum said, and enjoy myself. I could go to Estonia. I could see my homeland. ‘Your real homeland,' she said, when I pointed out that I had been born in Footscray. I had, after all, she joked, been made in Tallinn. I had to force a smile every time she said that. I could see, Mum continued, where she and Dad had grown up. She wished that she could go too.

I didn't say anything to Brendan about Estonia before we left, but when we were in Helsinki I talked him into taking the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn. It helped that we had already taken the Silja Line from Copenhagen to Stockholm, and from Stockholm to Helsinki, and that he'd got lucky in nightclubs on each leg of the trip. It also helped that some British students we met at a bar in Helsinki told us about the cheap beer in Estonia.

The Silja Line to Tallinn was full of middle-aged and dour Finns who flocked to the duty-free shops as soon as they boarded, armed with retractable trolleys on which they piled boxes of vodka and beer. Brendan was in a sulk for the entire morning. We sat in silence in a passageway lined with poker machines.

When we got to Tallinn it was raining. We were only staying a night, so we boarded a tourist bus that was taking a circuitous route through Tallinn to the Old Town. The tour guide, who had split our fares with the bus driver, said he would take us to a popular backpackers' in the Old Town at the end of the tour. All the stag parties from the UK, he said, went there.

On the bus, which was full of Finns from the ferry, the guide spoke in Finnish through a small megaphone. Mum had told me that Finnish was similar to Estonian, but given that I understood only a few phrases that Mum and Dad used around the house – put the fire on; dinner's ready – I couldn't understand a word the guide said. As the bus toured Tallinn, I saw concrete tenement blocks in worse shape than the high rises around Melbourne. Outside a market, I saw old men and women on footpaths, laying wares on blankets in the rain. There were mangy dogs loitering behind.

Brendan had decided that Tallinn was a dump, but he changed his mind when we reached the Old Town, which was all got up for tourists. When we were having dinner in a restaurant in a centuries-old stone building, he got talking to the waitress. It was hard to tell how old she was – the room was lit only by a couple of gothic timber candelabra hanging from the ceiling – but she was definitely older than the type Brendan normally liked. She was wearing a black apron and green eye shadow. She was slender, and she had long brown hair. Her English wasn't perfect. I ordered red wine and told her that my parents were Estonian and that I had come to see my homeland, but she wasn't interested. I ended up leaving Brendan at the restaurant.

When I woke up the next morning, the top bunk in the basement room we'd been given at the lodge was still empty. I found the piece of paper that Mum had given me in my wallet. I smoothed out the folds and creases and looked at her slanted and careful handwriting. She had given me three addresses: her home, her work and Dad's home.

I took a taxi from a bus stop on a road outside the Old Town. It was still raining, and the sky was a solid grey. I gave the driver the list of addresses, clumsily negotiating a flat fee, and he drove me, in silence, first to a nearby tenement building, its small windows as grey as the sky, and then to what looked like a concrete spaceship in the middle of the city: the Central Post Office where Mum had worked and which, Mum had told me countless times, had been built for the sailing regatta held in Tallinn as part of the Moscow Olympic Games. Since coming to Australia, Mum hadn't been allowed to work again. The winder on the passenger door in the cab was missing, so I took photographs of the buildings through the rain-streaked window. Then we left the city.


THE JOURNEY TOOK hours. The asphalt roads became narrower and rougher, and there were endless flat green fields and forests of dark trees. The sky remained grey. I started to feel as if I had a hangover, and I had to close my eyes. When the driver woke me up, we were parked on the side of a dirt road by a grassy clearing in a forest of mottled birch and dark-green fir trees. I couldn't see any houses or other cars. It was still raining. The colour of the day had changed, and I could hear the engine ticking. I started to panic.

I looked at the taxi driver, who sat with Mum's piece of paper in his lap. He was small, wizened and brown. He smiled. His teeth were bad. He pointed to Mum's handwriting, tapping his finger on the page at ‘Dad's home', and then to the clearing surrounded by forest.

Mum once told me that Dad had spent his childhood summers in the woods. I imagined him in these forests, ravenous as a wolf. Perhaps he had shot game or caught fish in hidden lakes or streams. I had wondered what Dad's parents had thought of his escapades, but Mum didn't know. She had never met them. They died long before she came on the scene. Mum had been to the house, though. Dad had brought her here after the wedding in a work truck so that he could collect some old furniture for their flat in Tallinn. There was the timber frame of his mother's bed, grey with age but still strong, and a dining table that was the same. The barn, Mum said, had already collapsed, and the house had looked as if it was ready to fall down. It seemed as if there was nothing here now.

I looked out of the passenger window, which was still blurred by rain. The grass of the clearing was wet and lush. The weather and undergrowth made the forest look impenetrably dark.


WHEN I GOT home from Raphael's tutorial, Dad was in the backyard setting bait-less mousetraps on the ground under the netting cloaking his apple trees. There were four trees. While they had been there for years, they weren't yet more than two metres high. Nevertheless, they bore fruit every year. The netting and the traps were for birds.

I drank a glass of water at the kitchen sink, watching Dad from the kitchen window. It was the middle of the day, and the sky was perfectly blue. It was hot, but Dad was wearing a woollen jumper. His hair was almost white, and unbrushed. Crouching on one knee, he sprung the wire on a wooden trap and gingerly placed it on the bare earth under the gnarled and laden branches of an apple tree.

The house was quiet. I found Mum in the bathroom, showered and in her dressing gown, putting on mascara in front of the old mirror. Her hair was still damp, and she had it combed back and held in place by an Alice band. She smiled at me as I stood at the bathroom door, then kept going with the mascara.

‘Do you need me to change the bandage?' I asked.

She dipped the brush into the black bottle that she was holding in the bandaged hand. ‘I'm fine now, my son.' She smiled at me again, one of her eyes framed by thickened lashes. I wanted to touch her, but instead I smiled back. She turned away from me and started work on the other eye.

I went to my room and ransacked my pine desk for the essay questions for Raphael's subject. The essay wasn't due for a week, but I knew what I wanted to write and, even though English was her second language, Mum liked to proofread my essays before I submitted them. ‘In poems such as "The Red Wheelbarrow",' I read, ‘William Carlos Williams strips the world bare of meaning. Discuss.'

I looked out of my bedroom window and into the backyard. The sky was cloudless, and the air was still. Dad, his face set in a grimace, was down on all fours on the dust beneath the leafy branches of an apple tree, setting another empty trap.

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