Peter’s Tales

I established this blog in order to publish the many short stories I have written. These vary greatly in length and subject matter. Some have been published elsewhere, in magazines and anthologies. Some have been short listed for prizes. Most have not previously been available.

Scroll down and you will find thirty stories posted so far. I have also posted a non-fiction account of my time working as a psychiatrist in Iraq in 2009. You will find this at the bottom of your scroll, after the short stories.

Depending on your internet speed, the scrolling down may stop from time to time as more material is uploaded. Stopping does not mean you have come to the end of what is available. Just be patient and the scrolling will start again.

Happy reading.

Peter

London Story

London disappointed me. The people seemed angry, not proud, and at twenty-five I had my expectations. At twenty-five, nineteen seventies London seemed old and stingy really – to a young man from Australia on his world adventure.

          But not in Hampstead, as it happened. In Hampstead we were poor but we walked in blustery weather on Hampstead Heath, seeing the drizzle-clad city far below us. In Hampstead the landlady was high-born: she served the supermarket butter on family silver; and she smoked cheap menthol cigarettes through an ebonite holder, clenching it between her teeth or holding it obliquely, beside her elegant face. We talked into the early hours, the landlady and I. Never mind how old she was, I fell in love. And London disappointed her too, she said. Nowadays.

          That was years ago and the particulars of the afternoon I want to tell you about occurred despite her really, as I remember it now. Its excitement, still remembered, occurred despite her being responsible for the circumstances of the occasion. She merely poured the tea, while the interest for me was masculine, boyish perhaps, independent of her grandeur and sexuality.

          It was one of her guests who enthralled me that afternoon: an old man of nondescript demeanor – grey haired, his tweed jacket brown and worn. He slurped his tea, and I shared the battered chaise-longue with him, and wondered what to talk about. The floral pattern on my china cup had ceased to be of interest to me, and I was bored, I suppose, and not much company for him. Yet he wanted to talk, and that is the point I want to make: he had something to say.

          He told me that he had long since retired from his university post but that he still continued his researches, undeterred. He still studied the world-wide distribution of insects and the messages from the ancient past that distribution might encode.

          ‘Often,’ he said, ‘I don’t sleep for nights on end, my head is so full of fleas and ants and dragonflies and beetles.’ His eyes shone. ‘They are my darlings,’ he said. ‘I have adored them all my life.’

          Eons ago, he told me, a great continent broke apart, and its parts moved about the surface of the earth. They coalesced to form new continents, and then they too broke up. Those parts regrouped to form other continents, and eventually to form the continents we know today. That breaking up of those great plates, and their movements about the globe, were events of infinitesimal slowness as millions upon millions of years accrued. The time is beyond our imagining of it, he said, so great was its stretch, so gradual those events.

          Yet the insects were there. So vastly more ancient than ourselves, the insects lived and multiplied and adapted to change. And the insects’ living space broke up too and reformed and broke and grouped again. Each continental plate a raft of primeval life slipped and turned and slithered about the globe, and the insects of the current world carry the evidence for all that then occurred.

          ‘Often,’ he said, ‘I don’t sleep for nights on end, my head is so full of the pieces of that great jigsaw puzzle of insect-bearing plates.’ His eyes gazed into mine. ‘Compare,’ he said, ‘the ladybirds of the west coast of South America, with those of east Africa, for a start. See how the mouth parts have modified and colours merged with the vegetation, yet ancient clues persist. See the Egyptian hammer fly and the central Asian night wasp.’

          ‘I’m from Australia,’ I said, desperate to add at least something of my own.

          ‘Most wonderful, to come from Australia.’ He seized on my meager contribution like a new discovery. ‘And do you know,’ he said, ‘Australia is an entire continent today, separate from the rest.’

          ‘Of course I know…’

          ‘But do you really know that? As I know it? Do you?’

          ‘Well…’ I began.

          ‘I’ll tell you,’ he said.

          ‘I suppose you will,’ I said and then regretted my rudeness.

          ‘You think I’m an old show off?’ he asked.

          ‘Yes.’

          We both laughed.

          ‘I’ll tell you something else I can do too,’ he said, by no means offended. ‘I can recognise instantly where any insect comes from, from anywhere on earth.’

          ‘That’s impressive. How?’

          ‘When you are as familiar with the little darlings as I am, it’s easy of course. Whether they are ants or ticks or cicadas, the African ones have an African look to them, the Chinese ones look Chinese, and the Australians are clearly from Australia. It’s all obvious to me, you know.’

          ‘How do you mean, they ‘look African’ or they ‘look Chinese’?’

          ‘Like the landscape. Or the vegetation. They look the same as other elements of the total scene. In whatever part of the world they come from they resemble their surroundings in that way. They’ve evolved that way.’

          ‘But why should they?’ I said. ‘Why would they evolve to look like the landscape or the vegetation?’

          ‘Of course they do. It’s simply a matter of Mother Nature having a sense of style.’

          ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I see.’

          I don’t know now whether anything the old professor said was the truth about the ancient happenings to which he referred. He may have made it all up. As for ‘Mother Nature’s sense of style’, I will leave it to you to decide what you think of that. You can see things how you want.

          His claims passed untested by me, of course. I had no Australian grasshopper in my pocket at the time, or South American stick insect, or Arabian gnat that I could whip out and say: ‘So where does this come from?’

          He told me nothing I now believe and I never met him again. Yet I remember forever that occasion in disappointing London long ago.

The Journey

The journey begins in a spirit of cheerful anticipation. Headlights illumine a negotiable way ahead, and signposts, road forks and crossways offer choices to the traveler – choices between acceptable alternative routes and new discoveries. The rear vision also reassures with dwindling distance covered. Only the dark foliage of the trees, sometimes meeting overhead in intricate array, tells of moonlit paddocks on either side, of sleeping houses, of ranges, realms and night creatures unimagined.

Sometimes the road winds through open country and sometimes straightens into the streets of towns. A crowd sometimes enlivens the traveler’s eye with bicycle lamps and illuminated taxi signs, and the baleful headlamps of tourist coaches bearing down. Then the traveler may see families and young lovers on fairground hurdy-gurdy rides, sales displays and old men on wooden seats. But sometimes only an empty road accompanies him, and only the geometry of the dark is shape to shape his curious brain, as he peers through the insect-spattered screen that guards his face from night.

The traveler rests at times, holding his face with his hands, squeezing vertical lines into his tired forehead, as the car engine grows cold. At times he sets off again, only to find the road become tendentious or too steep. The car engine loses power and coughs in the thin air. At times the traveler stops again and eats and reads the news.

But on this journey he may find his heart’s desire along the way. Through finding this thing, this fellow creature, this Shangri La, he knows what is in his heart and what is the nature of his desire. Or he may find, as well, that thing he fears, and by that too he knows himself and what he fears and what manner of man he is. Everything on this journey reveals him to himself. Evil reveals his sense of evil, astonishment what comes to him as surprise, disgust that which disgusts him, intrigue that which intrigues. Even should he see death career headlong towards him, that is his own mortality he carries always with him on his way, and now he sees.

For some the journey is well observed and a famous enterprise. Letters home, letters to the editor, letters to men in high places, ensure their whereabouts is known. But most travelers on this night journey are mostly lost. Sometimes we pity them.

If Interested

I was probably rehearsing my plans for the day, as usual, as I arrived. Not that I need to go over in advance what I am doing on a Monday at work, but that is my habit. I enjoy having plans – what I would call a ‘satisfactory routine’ – and, what is more, that is how I get myself into what I call the ‘mind-set’ for the day. Then I saw the woman in the foyer. She was using a public telephone, unusual in itself these days, and kept talking to whomever on the other end, or maybe no one at all. She returned my stare quite definitely, as if to make sure I knew she had noticed I was looking, rather than to show any reaction to me. A beautiful woman must somehow learn to deal with her effect on others. I had never thought about that before, as far as I could remember. A beautiful woman might sometimes deal with the matter in that way, I realised. She returned my stare ‘blandly’, I would say, as she listened to whomever on the phone, or no one at all, her curved lips showing the slightest suggestion of amusement at whomever’s words. Or was it at me? So I am the embarrassed one here, I thought, while at the same time feeling reassured that I might not have to be.

All this got to me, I can tell you. No sooner had I gone inside my office, than I was out again, pretending I had remembered something I needed at the reception desk again. She was no longer on the phone. In fact, I all but missed seeing her again, as she hurried out past the desk. She had put on a coat. She seemed more beautiful. Then she was gone.

I saw my pile of folders sitting on a chair. How on earth had I come to leave them there? I picked them up, and a small piece of paper fluttered to the polished granite floor. It was a torn scrap from a hamburger store advertisement with yellow and red printing on one side. On the other, in neat handwriting, was the message: ‘Same time tomorrow, if interested.’

This must be from the porter, for one of the chamber maids, I told myself at first. But I knew it was from her to me. The idea entered my mind with quite a jolt. The piece of paper looked different then. Or could it be for me from someone else? I wondered. Or from her for someone else? Am I just slow on the uptake? I wondered. Does this kind of thing happen to other people all the time? Has it happened to me before, and I have not noticed? Have I missed out?

Well what does it matter if it is from her to me? I thought then. Is she really interested in me? Is she selling drugs, perhaps? Is she a prostitute? A spy? What have I got to offer?

I looked at the note many times during the course of the day. I folded it, then unfolded it. I screwed it up, then smoothed it out again. The message neither increased nor diminished with rereading. Sometimes I decided she was kind, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes that she was merely impulsive and would not return. Sometimes that I was more attractive than I had thought.

Eventually I threw the note away, only to wish later that I still had it and could check it once again.

This morning I turned up the setting on my razor by one notch, to get a closer shave. I shaved even more carefully than I usually do, to avoid any inadvertent nicks or abrasions to my face. The result was satisfactory. I chose to wear the same clothes as yesterday, but brushed my jacket painstakingly before setting out from home.

She was there when I arrived, but so were a dozen other people in the foyer.

‘Hello again,’ said a man I recognised but could not name.

‘Hello,’ I said to him.

She seemed not to have noticed my arrival, but walked off along the corridor towards the lifts. I followed and caught her up.

‘Did you write me a note?’ I asked.

‘Who are you?’ she said. She stepped into the lift and was again gone.

But I can’t leave it at that, can I? Not now.

Healing Leaves

 ‘I’m sick of telling this story,’ says Auntie Jean, the old aboriginal woman. She giggles like a naughty girl.

‘Thank you for your honesty,’ says one of our group, laughing too.

‘My sister mad about this story. She tell it all the time.’

Our Arnhem Land tour has come to this sandy spot among the trees, to learn about the aboriginal use of leaves of a particular shrub as a healing tool. We might even experience some healing applications for ourselves.

‘These old ladies have healing hands,’ our group guide has said.

‘And I am cold,’ Auntie Jean complains, giggling again and looking mischievously from face to face.

It is an unusually blustery day at a time of year when the weather is supposed to be hot and still. She wears two brightly coloured cardigans, one over another, and sits with several other women beside a fire of sticks, which flares and flickers as the wind blows.  Water filled with large green leaves warms on the fire in a metal tub.

‘Tell us a different story then,’ someone calls out.

‘Tell us where babies come from,’ someone else jokes.

Auntie Jean giggles some more, her large, well-cardiganned body shaking like a jelly. Her aboriginal sisters giggle and shake too. She tells us how turtles are caught, how their throats are slit.

‘Their liver and guts and everything are pulled out through the hole,’ she says. ‘These leaves are put into the gutted turtle to give a good flavor to the cooked meat. They can be used to flavor bull and cow meat too. We gather them from certain shrubs in the bush. Only the women are good at recognizing them, but our young aboriginal footballers beat their bodies with these leaves to help them win a match. And old people in mourning. They beat their bodies with them as part of the grieving ritual.’

Her conversation wanders from topic to topic, each one only loosely connected to the one before, as we wait for the water to boil and the leaves to cook. She entertains us partly with the disconnected nature of her talk, as if filling the time with whatever comes into her head, and partly with the novelty of the information, but mainly by simply holding our attention with her eyes. Many of us chuckle and exclaim too.

Somewhere amongst it, she mentions that when the leaves are cooked in water they give out sticky oil which can be rubbed into the body to ease aches and pains. Soon members of our group are unbuttoning shirts or rolling up trouser legs. In the end all of us have one part of our body or another rubbed with hot slimy leaves by merry aboriginal women.

Of course we all feel better for it.

Frankie

Frankie, a bearded Aboriginal man with twinkling eyes, tells us many things in his own language about the termite mound he has brought us to see, in the dry bush of Arnhem Land. He speaks with accompanying gestures, pointing to things, showing how things happen and how things are done. Eventually our tour guide translates his whole account. A kookaburra has made the large hole at the top of the tall mound to lay her eggs, and the worker termites have sealed this section off from the termite nest below. The tall mound of dried brown earth is only the ventilation system anyway for the main two thirds of the nest, which is underground. Here the male and female termites produce eggs, and the workers bring them food. If the surface of the above-ground mound is disturbed there are also soldier termites who appear initially to defend against the cause of the damage. Workers come later to repair the breach.

Frankie brings a screwdriver from our vehicle and pokes a few small holes in the large mound, to demonstrate. Fierce little creatures, like tiny ants with white bodies, swarm out immediately. The termites are not ants, however, our guide says, but insects more closely related to cockroaches.

Frankie observes then, in language which is then translated, that we are all standing idly about, our driver is standing over there and our vehicle is waiting empty and stationery. So why are we not getting going from here? We laugh.

We drive on to a spot where a pandannus palm grows, and where Frankie shows us how the fronds are split along their length to reveal tough fibres which can be rolled on the thigh to make rope.

After a while he again points to us, to our driver and to our vehicle and asks why we are not moving on?

The next stop on our journey through the bush is at a milkwood tree. Frankie and our guide both break twigs to show us the thick milky sap used to bind the ochre for painting on rock or bark. This can also cause blindness, and last time she was here our guide got some in her eye, she tells us. It might also make you pregnant someone else jokes. The soft, lightweight wood of the milkwood tree is also very good for carving, Frankie tells us, so the tree is much valued by Aboriginal artists. We begin to hear English words among those of his language as he speaks, like ‘old people’ and ‘carving’.

Again he points to us, to our driver and to our vehicle and asks why we are not moving on?

At the fourth stop we see a round hollow in a flat stone where Aboriginal women have ground seed for hundreds of years, making flour for their dampers and slowly wearing the stone away. Frankie has some red ochre from elsewhere which he grinds instead, with water, to create paint. He breaks a twig from a particular tree and chews the end to form a brush. With this he slowly and carefully draws curving lines of ochre on the black skin of his inner forearm. There is something uncanny about the steadiness of his hand and the flowing smoothness of the lines he draws. A fat goanna takes shape, which he shows us briefly, then washes off with more water.

We are standing around again while our driver and vehicle wait, he observes again. Let’s go!

Lastly we come to an iron wood tree, from which the old people used to make woomeras for throwing spears, Frankie tells us. He has a painted woomera to show us, but his is made from timber from the store. Why not from iron wood, we ask. He points out again that we are just standing around and could be going. Besides which, he says, he has a cup of tea waiting for him at home.

Multimedia Presentation

I hear the didgeridoo first, as we walk towards the ‘welcome to country’ on the sandy shore. The gut vibrating sound is ancient and demanding. The old man playing it, we learn later, is revered by his people for his wisdom and healing powers. Arriving on the scene, I hear too the high pitched call of the storyteller singing on one note then falling away, singing on one note then falling away, as if transmitting information from a distant place. He tells the Galpu clan story of the Spirit Man. Clap sticks accentuate the rhythm, also played by a chosen member of the clan.

The Spirit Man walks across the land, hunting and digging for bush tucker, placing it in his dilly bag. The Spirit Man finds water, cups it in his hands and splashes it onto his body. The Spirit Man negotiates with the crow for possession of a sweet water hole. The accompaniment starts just after the singer begins each section of the story. It ends just before he finishes, leaving the voice trailing on for a few seconds alone.

Two young male dancers also tell the story, using stylized stamping movements, clapping at times, or stretching their arms on either side of their bodies like bird wings. The quick movements of their thin legs are also birdlike. At other times they blow through their lips, or groan, or shout, in rhythm. One of them is handsome and has great presence, and the other less so, appearing more to be going through the motions while gazing out to sea. Yet later the more accomplished dancer is too shy to talk or to make eye contact, while the other one is friendly. The dancers’ bodies are adorned with clay from a sacred place elsewhere. They wear white emu feather head bands as the Spirit Man does. Their dancing also starts and ends with the didgeridoo and clap sticks, just after the singer begins and just before he finishes.

Women also dance nearby in a restrained way, with no clapping or vocalizing. They wear rainbow colours to represent the rainbow serpent which is a totem for the clan. Small children and strangers join them in their dance. One naked toddler bangs tiny clap sticks together.

A female informant also tells the story to those being welcomed, like me, in ordinary words. She speaks gently but proudly, between the episodes of didgeridoo, clap sticks and male singer. She makes clear the importance of this story to her people. The whole performance takes place on a sacred site on which we are standing, she says. She points to a crow that flies in from the surrounding bush just as the singer refers to the crow in his storytelling, as if this too has been arranged.  Other clans have rights to other parts of a much longer account of the actions of the Spirit Man, she says, so the Galpu clan presentation is part of something larger, shared across clans.

I find the ritualized story-telling entertaining, of course, and feel honoured to be welcomed in this way. I marvel too at the multimedia presentation. That the performance establishes the status of certain members within the clan, including different roles for men and women. That it tells something about the clan members’ place in the grand scheme of things and also places the clan in relation to other clans in the telling of a shared story. I marvel as well at the familiarity of it all, yet how little I know about the fifty-thousand-year-old culture of the Aboriginal people of Australia.