The Seanachai

Mark Cornell

Short Fiction by Mark Cornell

Aidan grew up in a tin sheet roofed humpy on a vacant block in Murrumbeena. His dark skinned frizzy haired Mum, Ruby, never found a job. His Dad disappeared soon after he was born. Ruby scratched out a living by selling vegetables from her tiny veggie patch. By the time Aidan was four he could tell you the name of every plant and how it grew. His Mum too taught him about the bush before it was cleared by the swarming new settlers. As Margaret helped her Dad Tully clear their block of tea trees they noticed the little fella from across the road and offered him a few bob if he helped. Tully gave Ruby, a bit of dosh to help send her boy, to Murrumbeena State School.

 Aidan was stirred mercilessly due to the rags he wore and because his Mum was an “Abo.” Margaret watched helplessly when the school bullies tossed Aidan down on the ground and kicked him in the pills. Ruby couldn’t afford to send her son to the Doctor, the boy cried in agony for weeks. Ruby never complained to the school because they didn’t listen to her people. Next to the open fire at night she told him stories. Aidan learnt about his mob’s god, Bundjel, who carried a large knife and made the earth by cutting it in many places, carving out the creeks and rivers, the mountains and valleys. He is still with us today in the form of an eagle. Aidan wasn’t so sure. Why didn’t he swoop down from the sky to protect him from the bullies? Aidan heard the wattle trees sigh, the tea trees cry, as the new settlers cut them down. He missed his old friends, the cheeky rosellas, the nosy mynahs, the gargling wattle birds and the elusive butcher bird.  The little’s boys’ pain between his legs dulled but never left him.

 Years later Tully set up his own plastering business with two son’s Clarrie and Ryan. Clarrie and Ryan had a reputation at Murrumbeena State. When they too were surrounded by the bullies, Clarrie got Ryan to lie flat down on the ground in front of him, then picked his brother up by the arms and swung him around in circles. Ryan kicked the shit out of the bullies while his hand linked brother whirled like a dervish. The boys were never picked on again and counted Aidan as one of their many mates. Tully and the boys worked all over Victoria. Any money the boys made went straight to their Dad, who said he sunk it all into the house in Murrumbeena. Scanlon and sons scored a big job in Benalla. A local dark haired young girl, Gwen, took a fancy to Clarrie. But the Scanlon’s were all good Catholic boys. Gwen was a single mother. In the early sixties this was believed to be a big sin. Gwen suffered depression and was admitted into the local asylum while her mother, looked after the baby boy, Grady. Gwen underwent E.CT.  Aidan often visited the Scanlon’s, and was moved by her plight, soon the two were married. They raised Grady to believe Aidan was his natural father. Which is just as well because Aidan discovered her couldn’t father children due to the damage he’d suffered as a boy.  
       
    Before Aidan got married he often visited Margaret and her kids. Margaret’s boy Connor took a shine to his Uncle Aidan straight away. He remembers sitting on Aidan’s shoulders and shrieking while the man jumped down the steep front stairs to their Nioka St Jordanville house. Somewhere there’s a picture of Aidan, Connor and his sister, Rowena, all beaming at the Royal Melbourne Agricultural Show. Connor had on a Navy Captain’s hat, which he treasured for years. He looked like a skipper of a torpedo boat. Uncle Aidan came around every Friday night to tell the kids stories. Aidan used to make up characters, the one they all recall is, “Oilcan Harry.” Aidan admitted to Connor years later that when he’d get stuck he’d always, “ What happens next? ” Sure enough they always had an enthusiastic response which the story teller picked up and pushed on with. Connor never forgot the haunting beauty of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and The Nightingale and the Rose. Years later Connor told Aidan he’s sure that’s where his love of storytelling and writing came from. One Christmas the kids made a book for Aidan with pictures of their favourite characters. These days Aidan kicks himself because he can’t find it.

* * *

A teenage Connor visited Aidan’s house in Oakleigh with his parents. Aidan worked hard to become a Union Official in the Tramways and had a huge library. Connor had never seen so many books, especially on U.F.O’s. He devoured them and ended up spooking himself. Two stories that stuck in his head were set in the wilds of the Amazon Jungle. The first one told of a terrified peasant who’d seen a flying saucer land in the middle of nowhere and raced back to his village pursued by shadow like creatures. They hovered around his hovel declaring “Cisco knows too much and must be destroyed,” sure enough Cisco walked out in a trance and was never seen again. The second one told of Pablo who was pursued up a tree by aliens. One of the aliens was robot which looked a bit like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. The robot kept opening his mouth to emit a gas that knocked out the peasant; miraculously he was found unconscious hanging up in the tree the next day. The Aliens never got him. Trouble was Connor lived in the then outer suburb of Bulleen, a dark suburb full of bushland, it was perfect U.F.O country.

Connor was the first in his family to make it to year twelve. It was 1975, the year our democratically elected Prime Minister was sacked by the representative of the Queen. Aidan and Connor were outraged.  However at family dos it seemed they were the only two. Aidan immersed himself in street protests and strikes, Connor called his Grandfather and two uncles a pack of fascists. They smarmily dismissed the boy as a “Commo,” like Conservatives everywhere it’s easy to scapegoat and whip up fear; the new labels are now “Greenie,” or “terrorist.” Connor’s father Glen was glad Gough Whitlam was gone and told his long haired son they’ll put him in the army and find a war to make a man out of him.

When he wasn’t dancing at family dos with his Uncle Bernie, Connor yarned about politics and literature with his Uncle Aidan. Aidan loved the classics; in particular Russian and Irish literature. Aidan introduced Connor to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Connor was blown away by the dark bleakness of Crime and Punishment. He was the first in his family to make it to University. When Glen heard the news Connor was accepted by La Trobe he told his son, “you’re flogging a dead horse.” Connor went to La Trobe determined to acquire knowledge to make this a better world. Poetry came to him as he studied. It haunted him while he struggled to become a teacher. His insomnia returned and he started taking sleeping pills. Poems demanded to be put down on paper. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, sang John Lennon just before he died.

 Connor threw his teaching career in and ended up as a temporary filing clerk in the public service. He used to deliver Sarah her files each morning and take them away at the end of the working day. A big mob of public servants went back to the Retreat Hotel each Friday night; Connor found himself talking to the fair haired Sarah about politics, history and literature. She’d studied at Monash University and was saving up her pennies to go to Europe. Connor was saving to go to Ireland. They clicked at a friend’s twenty first birthday. Connor came dressed as a Highland Warrior, kilt and all; Sarah went as schoolgirl from Picnic at Hanging Rock. They danced; Connor hadn’t danced since his family dos. Five years later, they got married in a registry office in Dublin. Aidan was one of the first relatives they met when they got back. After an afternoon’s discussion an astonished Sarah looked at Connor to ask, ‘ Are you sure he’s not your real father?’

Out in The Burren, the West Coast of Ireland, Connor and Sarah found a wood carving of an old man with a walking stick following a winding brown path below white birds and green fields. It’s called the Seanachai; who was a traditional story teller that travelled from village to village to earn his keep. Connor considers Aidan his Seanachai. The carving hangs pride of place in their kitchen of their leafy house on the outskirts of town.        

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