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Edition 34

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Fiction

Searching for Monty

WHEN MY GRANDPA lived in the house near the bay, the old wooden house with the jacaranda trees in front and splintered grey floorboards on the verandah, they would take afternoon walks down the hill and along the waterfront, under the Moreton Bay figs and flame trees. It seemed so English to me, this habit of formal walks, an idea confirmed by Jane Austen novels. Trixie carried an umbrella, which she called a parasol, and looked like a memsahib. Monty might buy fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, or Trixie might post letters, but their walk was a promenade, timed to coincide with high tide. My family always read and listened to the weather report: rain, temperatures, winds and tides. At low tide, grey mud stretched out towards the shallow brown water of Moreton Bay with its humped sand-islands on the horizon. Fishermen waded through mud with buckets of bait and soldier crabs swarmed in hundreds. I swam in the water once and came home with a rash on my chest and thighs.

Pollution! I said. Chemicals!

Sea lice, my father said.

At that time, when Monty's memory began to fail, and he began to get lost, Trixie encouraged him to write down his stories. It was something to occupy him, she and my mother would say. The women in my family knew they had a role that lasted as long as their legs, or their energy, or their hearts. They knew that men might fall apart when they left a job, or a farm, or a business. Monty started to drift. Anxiety attacks, dizziness, failing memory. He would put on his hat and wander off down the road. He might walk in any direction, travelling through time as well as space, as the hot suburban streets running down to the bay opened out into a larger map and a looser time. Monty went looking for his Indian Army bungalow, or the pier where the ships sailed for England. These sites had come loose from their moorings, and when the mind was flooded everything floated.

The neighbours liked Trixie. A real English lady; she always smiled and said a kind word. Monty would come home after an encounter and say, You don't know what sort of people they are. This was his refrain, about real estate agents, bank managers, and officials at the local RSL: You have to be on guard with these rogues.He had a vocabulary of mistrust and danger, a choice of words: scoundrels, villains, bandits, as well asrogues. These words were more forceful than the words he used when, as children, we jumped on his furniture, bounced on their beds, or made cheeky remarks. Scamp, imp, rascal, scallywag, he called us, usually with a smile.

Can't trust them, Monty would say about the neighbours, after a session over the back fence, arguing about an overhanging branch, or a fence to be repaired. His pride was injured; he felt he was not being treated with respect: it led to difficult conversations. Nobody knew who he was. An Englishman in a worn tweed jacket, a Pom with a funny accent and a husky voice who said By Jove a lot. Now he lived in the outpost suburbs of an Australian city, but he had travelled the world as a young man, he had fought in two wars, and he wanted this adventurous life acknowledged. I leafed through his photograph albums: Zanzibar, Natal, Aden and Borneo. He stood in front of the Taj Mahal wearing tropical white, or beside the Euphrates in military uniform; he wore a padded coat on a hillside in Tibet, on his way to see the Dalai Lama. In the Indian Army he had hobnobbed with Lords and Generals, and drunk toasts to the Queen in the Officers'Mess, and lived a life of servants and medals, tiger skin rugs and monogrammed silver. He had fought and faced danger on the Northwest Frontier, camped in the Hindu Kush and crossed the Khyber Pass. The neighbours looked blank when he talked about it. The Khyber Pass meant nothing to them, unless they had seen Carry On Up the Khyber, filmed in ten days in Snowdonia, not the Hindu Kush, in 1968. Sid James was Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, governor of the province of Khalabar, defended by the Foot and Mouth regiment (one of whom is caught with his pants down) when Kenneth Williams as the Khasi of Khalabar incites an anti-British rebellion. (Favourite lines include Gone for Tiffin! Fakir off! and That will teach them to ban turbans on the buses!)

He would entertain the woman in the post office, the Jehovah's Witnesses who knocked on the door, and their visitors with stories about tiger hunts and elephant rides. But he always argued with the neighbours. No manners, he would say, when he might have interpreted it differently and thought, they are working– class Australians and don't know who I am, they don't understand my manner or my accent, they think I'm astuck-up Pom trying to get the better of them. Monty would get het up about the neighbours. Another reason for moving. Speaking of moving: those real estate agents were rascals. Take a man down as soon as look at him. No better than thieves in the bazaars.

The neighbourhood women rang Trixie if they saw Monty in the street. Mr Fordham has started to wander, they said as they gossiped at the front gate, or ate fruitcake in each other's kitchens. Keep an eye out, they said. And adjusted the Venetian blinds. They watched for him walking past, by himself, tipping his hat and greeting them if they looked up while checking the letterbox or dead-heading the dahlias. Like the frontier guards of the Indian Army, or the intelligence services, but in floral polyester instead of khaki, the sisterhood of Formosa Street were on surveillance duty. Curtains twitched, doors opened and closed, telephones buzzed as they alerted one another. One rang Trixie. Another rushed into the garden to call out to him.

Mr Fordham, Mr Fordham, your wife is looking for you.

He would pause for a minute, confused.

Oh yes, Trixie, he said. I was going to meet the boat. I thought she'd already gone.

Trixie answered the telephone. The house was still, in the hot afternoon. She put on a straw sunhat, secured it with a hatpin, and hurried out to bring him home.

 

I ASK MY brother and sister what they remember about Monty.

War stories, India stories. I don't remember them, just stories.

Stories about riding an elephant. Shooting a tiger. And stories about camping out in the hills and waking up to see a man standing over him with a knife.

Trixie bringing us cups of tea and bread-and-butter in bed in the morning when we stayed with them. She used to butter the bread before she cut it, you can slice it thinner that way.

When we lived on the farm, and caught the train to Brisbane, it stopped at the station near where they lived. She used to come and meet the train. It was about halfway though the journey, and she'd bring us a thermos of tea and sandwiches or homemade cake. Remember? She'd run along the platform and hand them to us through the train window and talk to us till the train moved off again.

We'd lean out the windows and wave to her, as she stood on the platform next to boxes of bananas and pineapples waiting to be loaded on the next train.

Remember his story about the train trip when the engine driver gave them hot water for tea?

Monty told us about travelling by train with his Pathan servant, Rahman Khan. Imagine them on the Heatstroke Express, or the Frontier Mail.

We were on our way back to Kohat when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was about 110 degrees in the shade, by Jove you've no idea what the heat was like. We were all parched. Usually when you stop at a village, these chaps climb in the doors and even through the windows to sell you food and drinks. Sometimes they travel on the train and walk up and down calling out their wares.

I met the chai wallahs on the trains when I went to India later. Part of the theatre of the train: other eyes watching us, checking us out, men clearing throats and spitting, babies crying, silent women, smells of soot and disinfectant, and a chorus as the sellers of drinks walked down the corridor: Chai chai garam chai...chai chai lovely chai... kopi...lemon barley, mango frooti.

But there were no chai wallahs here, Monty said. Rahman Khan said, Tea, Sahib? Then he disappeared. He had a stash of tea somewhere, and he walked up to the front of the train and bartered with the driver. The driver opened the valve and let out steam, and boiling water, and Rahman Khan came back with a pot of tea.

Monty smiled. To think the grand railway bureaucracy had been hijacked to fill his blackened pot with tea.

He was a terrible driver, my sister said, worse than you. Remember? He used to stop and start all the time. Remember that old blue van? Trixie used to drive for him – turn left here, slow down...watch out for that car!

Didn't he have an old tweed jacket? And a badge on his lapel?

Monty was a dapper dresser. In a place where men wore open-necked shirts, or little boy T-shirts with khaki shorts and bare hairy legs, Monty always wore a long-sleeved shirt and a jacket, linen in summer, wool in winter, and a hat. We never saw him in shorts, though he talked about Bombay Bloomers, those long, wide-legged khaki army shorts. They were so stiff when they were starched and ironed that they stood up on their own, he said; you'd stand them on the floor and step into them. When money was tight, Monty and Trixie would shop secondhand. Monty's tweed jacket came from a respectable English department store. But it might have come via a church hall in a country town where every month the travelling Paddy's Market arrived, trestle tables were set up and loaded with a jumble of secondhand clothes, and everyone scrabbled for treasures.

Then there was the crocodile-skin suitcase. Monty said he shot the crocodile, but my mother maintains he bought the suitcase secondhand. Another family myth.

Why didn't we listen to Monty's stories then? He was just our grandfather. We heard them too often.

He wasn't good with children.

Not until he was older. Then he always wanted to talk to young kids and give them lollies. Remember how the mothers used to look at him?

Trixie was the one who made friends, everywhere they went. She always had letters to be posted. People wrote to her and sent Christmas cards and birthday cards, the family overseas and their neighbours from the towns they lived in and left behind.

Trixie always wrote her letters on those aerogrammes. Remember? That thin blue paper.

She had a paper knife with a tortoise shell handle to open letters.

He got a letter every Christmas from that man who'd been in the army with him, and lives on some island now.

We hadn't listened to Monty's stories, and by the time I wanted to talk to him about India, his memory was fading and the stories blurred into one another. Then first Trixie, then Monty died. All we had were the photograph albums, his letters to the prime minister and their passports. He had been an outsider for most of his life. An adventurer, a traveller, even as a young man; then he came halfway across the world with Trixie and lived in a country where nobody knew or cared that he'd risked his life.

 

THE CHINA CABINET stands next to the bookcase, in the living room in my grandparent's house. Trixie keeps the red velvet curtains half closed, to keep the room cool, she says. The bookcase has diamond leadlight doors; the photograph albums sit on the bottom shelf, below Trixie's pamphlets from the Rosicrucians and Theosophists, and Monty's books about India. The china cabinet has Italian bevelled-glass doors, and the shelves are crowded with treasures. Monty opens the door of the glass cabinet, and light fractures on the bevelled edges of the door. He picks up his medals to show us: silver with coloured ribbons. This one was the British War Medal. This one for the Northwest Frontier. Made at the Calcutta Mint. We lean over to look, close to his lined and papery skin. His fingernails are long and yellow. My fruit salad, he calls the medals. He shows us other treasures: a candlestick with the regimental crest, a tiger's tooth. A Bible his father gave him that he carried with him all through the war. The air in the room is still like water. We've been playing outside, in the heat. Trixie brings glasses of cordial and cups of tea on a tray and we sit on the sofa and drink the sweet orange stuff from the glasses.

Monty sits at the table with his photo album in front of him (Kodak, Series D, blue cloth cover). Trixie sits nearby with her sewing box, her mending collapsed on her knees. The lorikeets squabble in the trees outside. His hand shakes slightly, his writing wavers. He's writing captions under photographs. Where is this again? he asks Trixie. Rawalpindi, Quetta, Peshawar, Muttra, Simla. Fort Lockhart, Fort Sandeman. Mapping and classifying and naming were part of the process of claiming ownership, when the British moved in and took over. Not only to instruct and rule the native, but also to categorise, dissect and measure. To construct genealogies that didn't fit. To create dictionaries and grammars. To have command of the language meant to have the language of command. To speak Hindustani well, and to be answered respectfully. This soup has too much pepper. Bring my horse. You are a good-for-nothing fellow.

The information Monty wrote in his album might be a bit scrambled, but it's all I've got. Here he is in September 1918, at Fort Lockhart, trying to look benevolent, but looking a bit cocky, as my father would say, talking to smiling Afridi children. If I hadn't seen this photo, I would imagine it as the one-dimensional Empire in brief: the benevolent British soldier, trying to look like a father to the natives, his white face smiling, their dark faces smiling. He is taller, an adult, he is white; they are small dark children. He is the centre of the photograph; they fade to the edges. Behind him there's a military installation, a fort, beside him a gun. But when I look closely, Monty looks boyish (he was only twenty-six), in his white shirt and trousers and topi. He looks at ease. One of the boys, the older one, who wears a turban, turns towards him with his mouth open, talking. He is lively, cheeky, about to break into a smile; the photograph freezes him in a moment between one word or gesture and another. He stretches out his hand; he might be asking for money or pointing to something. Look, this is my place, this is where YOU are. Those are my uncle's goats I am looking after. He might be making a map, or giving directions. My village is over there. You should take this path. He reaches across the space between them, from the positions they occupy, coloniser and colonised, master and – what? Slave, subject? Oppressor and oppressed. He might touch Monty's watch, out of curiosity and desire. Or shake his hand. The second boy is in the shadow. He wears a cloth cap, he is hunched and silent; he looks away. The first boy is looking at Monty; the second looks towards the camera, but part of his face is obscured, hidden by a bush. He dissolves into the landscape.

Whatever the story behind the photo, it's more complex than domination and submission. Gramsci wrote about a dual consciousness, the way the oppressed are both enslaved by and complicit with the master, both living in their own reality and capable of resistance. Here they are, the two faces, the two boys. There's a dual consciousness for the colonisers too. Monty is caught in the hinges of history, as Ashis Nandy says, oppressed by the power he exercises. Monty must have had moments when he knew he was caught between the power of the ruler and the sometimes equal and opposite power of the ruled. This is what we learn: everyone is complicit.

 

IN THE HEAT of the Queensland afternoon, Monty and Trixie walk back up the hill. Monty wears his white Panama hat, and Trixie carries her handbag. Behind them, the tide is going out, and in the distance fishermen walk across the mud flats to a small island. An army of spider crabs reappears near the rock pools, and children in the wading pool call out to one another. At the top of the hill, my grandparents disappear into the shade where jacaranda trees hang over the pavement, then emerge into sunlight again at their gate. They climb the steps. The weatherboards creak, and cool air flows down the hallway to meet them as they open the door.


From Griffith Review Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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