Authors: Robert Power
Copyright Â©Robert Power 2012
This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Inquiries should be made to the publisher.
Every effort has been made to obtain permission for excerpts reproduced in this publication. In cases where these efforts were unsuccessful, the copyright holders are asked to contact the publisher directly.
Cover photograph: Ito Koichi (Zeissism)
Author photograph: Kip Scott
Cover and book design: Peter Lo
Printed in China by Everbest
This project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Cataloguing-in-publication entry is available from the
National Library of Australia:
ISBN: 978-1-921924-33-0 (e-book)
With love, as always, to my father and mother, Richard and Beatrice, and to my three sons, Tom, Dominic & Louis.
âHow little one counts, I think: how little any one counts; how fast and furious and masterly life is; and how all these thousands are swimming for dear life.' Woolf
I live in a house of adults who never tell the truth. At night, when they think I am sleeping, I sit on the half-landing, peering through the banisters, looking out, listening for clues.
Then she, the Mother, says: âAll that I do for you. What more can I do? You treat me worse than an animal. You're a pig to me and I'm your dirt.'
He, the Father, might laugh, or curse, or say nothing at all. This night he says: âI treat you like an animal, because that's all you are. A cow and a bitch.'
Then the phone rings right beneath me. It's on the mahogany table, the one with the heavy paperweights.
She picks up the receiver. Then she puts it back down without speaking.
I wonder about the words. The way they speak to each other. The bitch and the pig and the cow. Like the spoon and the dish and the cow jumping over the moon.
But, like all small boys, I try my best to make sense of the world of grown-ups. You see, there's no sister or brother to talk to and no happy cousins to visit (no one visits and we visit no one). But I'm not completely alone. I do have Blue Monkey to help me through all this mess. As always he waits patiently for me in my bedroom.
My name is Oscar Flowers, I am eleven years old, and this is the house I live in. I like to call it the House of the Doomed and the Damned. There aren't many occupants, just me, the Father, the Mother and Great Aunt Margaret. And Blue Monkey, but he's not Doomed nor Damned, and I like to think neither am I. But that remains to be seen. Blue Monkey is my very best friend, even though I am the only one who can see him. I'm not much interested in other children. Well, except for the Fishcutter Twins, who I watch out for at school. They're older and odder than me and seem to be apart from all the others, just like I am. They float around the playground, oblivious to all the childish things around them. I like watching and listening to them talking to each other, if I ever get close enough. Sometimes, though not very often, the Twins look at me as if they're about to say something, or else I'm supposed to say something to them. But then they move off somewhere else, leaving me gazing at an empty space. It makes me happy all the same, that brief moment, as they never take any notice of anyone else, not even the teachers.
I hear a lot these days. Hear and see things best left alone.
Like on one unexceptional evening, the day after my tenth birthday, with the moon watering the lawn through the long window, the Father says to the Mother: âSo when you've stopped playing the madwoman, be sure to mop the blood from the carpet. And the vomit, clear up the vomit. We don't want your Aunt Margaret to get the wrong impression.'
I venture forward, staring through the balustrade. There she is, on all fours, her long black hair dank and limp around her face. Frightened as I am, I catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of him. Sitting in the armchair, over by the fire, legs crossed, composed, smoking a cigarette. Plumes of smoke waft into the empty spaces of the huge room. I watch it rise to the ceiling. I smell the bitter choking smell of our house. The house full of adults who never tell the truth, where sadness echoes and rosary beads click a lament.
Later that night I turn once more to Blue Monkey. As always he sits in the same place: high up on the shelf in the corner of my bedroom, invisible to all but me. The top hat and silk waistcoat he wears give him a regal presence. Like a true king he never speaks to me, but I know he listens. So I tell him, in the softest of tones, in the voice of the Confessor, of the words the Father uses, the blood of the Mother, and the way her voice sounds when he hits her. I look up at Blue Monkey, his expression never changing, no matter what terrors I recount. He is always there, always ready for my whisper in the dark. He listens. He is my true friend and that is enough.
I lie on my bed, trying to work it all out.
A bitch is a female dog and a cow is a cow. So I draw a picture of the Mother as a dog with udders. The Father is a pig, a wild boar, all bristles, red eyes and fierce-looking tusks. In the left corner I draw myself as my favourite animal, the tiger, about to gobble him up. I give it a title in my best handwriting:
The tiger tries out his claws & teeth on the wild pig & the cowdog yelps with glee.
There are clues here. Clues to this strange and dangerous world of adults. Bitches and pigs, cows jumping over the moon, little dogs laughing to see such fun, wolves at the door. People as animals and animals as people. One of my favourite books that I've read over and over is about the boy who lives in the jungle. Once I read it to the end and then straight back to the beginning again. The boy is all alone, but he gets to know the way the animals are and who will help him and who he should be scared of.
And all the while, whenever she's around, Great Aunt Margaret gives me such funny looks. She knows I am trying to know. She sees things in me none of the others notice.
But like all small boys, I take what I get and get what I take.
Tiger: âTake that, pig â¦ you'll never harm the cowdog again.'
Cowdog: âGo get him, Tiger, you're my hero!'
Pig: âOink!! Ouch!!!!! You, win, Tiger, you win. Oink!! Ouch!!!!'
I've wanted to be a tiger ever since I first saw one. The memory is so clear. It comes back to me often. All I need to do is close my eyes.
I am at the circus with the Mother and Father. We are late and the show has begun. In the centre of the ring is a tiger on a blue-and-white plinth. He is majestic. Awe-inspiring. Strong and solid. But I am not afraid. There is more menace, more violence, in the room at the top of our house than in all the cages of lions and tigers, leopards and panthers.
I imagine myself as the ringmaster. I wear a long tailcoat of tomato red, tight black breeches and a shiny top hat. In my left hand I hold a whip, trailing and curling in the sawdust like an eel. My other hand rests on a wooden chair, which I use to keep the wild animals at bay, at arm's length, so to speak. We are encaged. Outside, the jugglers and tightrope walkers display their skills: catching burning batons on the tips of noses, balancing on a shoestring. A man with a long moustache spins plates. A woman the size of a button climbs into a fruit box. A trumpet sounds, cymbals clash, lights are dimmed. Then a single beam is projected from an arc light hanging from the roof of the tent. It picks me out. The bars of the cage appear like stripes across my face. The audience holds its breath as I take a bow, as I move centre stage, ready to perform. This ring-mastery. This circus of life.
I turn out of my dream world and towards Mother. I am sitting between them, the Mother and the Father. I look up at her: she is crying. A tear runs down her cheek as the horses gallop around the perimeter of the ring, their manes rippling and flowing, the sawdust flying from the clippety-clop of their hooves. The audience whoops and laughs, but we sit silent. Me, the Father, the Mother.
I look back into the ring as a drum roll rumbles the audience to silence. A spotlight picks out the tiger, standing alone on the plinth. The ringmaster comes forward, holding high a flaming hoop on a long metal pole. The audience gasps. The tiger, fearless and powerful, tenses his muscles and prepares to spring. The drum roll fades away, the spotlight turns to blue, and the tiger leaps through the hoop with a grace and energy that bewitches the crowd.
I want to be a tiger. I want to be fearless. I want to be powerful.
When I am a tiger, this is the sort of tiger I will be.
A blue tiger: an animal friend for Blue Monkey. My body has navy-blue stripes on a powder-blue background. I am the father to twenty-five tiger cubs from five tigresses. I am the best tiger father in the world. I do not roam away, but protect my cubs from hyenas, eagles, spitting cobras and other snakes in the grass, and the packs of wild dogs from the forest. I make sure my cubs have nice food to eat and a warm place to live. As they grow up I teach them the ways of the forest and take them on hunting trips, showing them how to stalk a peahen. I hide them in the long grasses to watch as I creep up on sambar deer at the waterhole.
There are rules for the cubs. Everyone needs rules so as to know what is right and wrong and when to expect a wallop. Here are the rules I teach my cubs:
Only kill animals to eat.
Always have the sun at your back when tracking a prey. A bit like taking a photograph.