Old Griff had pigs. Only two and always the same two, in one of those chicken-wire-bedframes and sheets-of-iron pens that country people with a few acres and not a lot of ambition used to keep animals in until the novelty wore off or the owners left the district or died.
Most of the small-holders had no money, so the pigs never knew when their time might be up. The clock just ticked on with Griff’s though. Every year after ‘the old girl’ had her litter and Griff finally got around to finding homes for them it was business as usual for their parents – and their owner: he spent a lot of time that his wife Irene begrudged leaning over their pen talking to them in a way that he and the pigs seemed to find restful. It was a solitary diversion however, and his efforts to share it with others generally weren’t rewarded: to independent eyes, when they were shouldering each other to see who could get their head buried deeper in the skim-milk, stale bread, windfalls and vegetable slops Griff had tipped in their trough, the pigs looked like overgrown grubs with legs. In an effort to spark some interest in his charges Griff sometimes tried to enlarge on individual quirks, and if that didn’t work, he’d fall back on the sensational: the sow would chase people out of the sty when she had a litter, while the boar could rip a man open if he got fired up, he said. Picturing that for most people though, was like imagining Griff jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to jot down an idea for a poem.
He was shortish and squat and stooped, and in middle age already well on the way to becoming a martyr to arthritis. It made strangers puzzle over how he’d ever managed to have two fruit growing properties in the first place; one overlooking the river where the pigs were kept and one on the edge of town where the family home was. When people found out he’d inherited the blocks from aboriginal relatives it made his ownership sound more unlikely; suspect, even. It wasn’t that he’d ever done any good out of them either. The first Robinson Crusoe-like survey he’d made of the properties had inspired him to want to leave his own mark on them, but none of his ideas bore any lasting fruit: the herd of milking goats he brought in to graze between the vines and fruit trees, finished up grazing on the vines and trees, and his chop-and-chance-it conversion of an old shed into a home for a flock of hens, saw most of the birds laying wherever they felt like it on the property. The sound of the fowls’ squawking during the day often echoed Irene’s reaction to their presence in the house and their huffy eviction from it, and long after the birds had gone for good the legacy of their occupation haunted the place like sand from a beach picnic. The failures seemed to snuff out whatever entrepreneurial spirit Griff had ever had, and after that he didn’t do much more than look on while the properties were slowly nibbled away. A half-acre was sold off here, an acre there, for houses – until all that was left were bits and pieces of the original fruit-salad properties that never got enough water and produced the same handfuls of fruit every year for birds to pick the eyes out of before they were ripe or drop on the ground, or hang on like sheep’s dags until the following year.
Griff couldn’t be unlikeable, and occasionally some neighbour tired of looking over his fence at the next-door wilderness might take pity on him and run a plough up and down the rows, but it still left trees and vines struggling to keep their heads above the nettles and marshmallows and paspalum and wild lettuce and fat-hen besieging them. And charity, or pity, came at a cost. “Miss the market again, Griff?” some smart-aleck would snipe when they saw the fruit sprawled under the trees after a blow. And nothing changed.
As a kind of Australian Pa Kettle, Griff not surprisingly copped all the flak for the way the family’s fortunes had been allowed to trickle away, when really, Irene should have worn some of the blame. She overshadowed him completely, and any protests he ever felt like voicing in the face of her decisions invariably died on his lips. It wasn’t because she’d come from money and been used to better things, either: her father’s idea of unwinding when he got home from the pub on Friday nights used to be to take to his kids with the buckle end of his belt: Irene’s spirit had survived that – but let her down when she decided to get married. She just wasn’t made for a life on the land – or with Griff – as it turned out. They really had nothing in common: Irene was a live-wire who loved going to dances and parties when she was young, while Griff always had to be dragged there. (He was said to have been a fair footballer in his youth but it was hard to imagine him ever being any sort of a dasher.) His large crumpled face looked like it had been around well before the rest of him, too, while Irene was dark and still youthful looking and striking in her way…And funny: when she pursed her lips before sharing some local scandal with her girlfriends, they’d bite their bottom lips in anticipation at the same time as they were chiding her behind their hands. She would have been too much for most men – which might have had something to do with why she finished up with Griff. When they first started going out together, some of her friends’ eyes widened: “Are you sure, Irene?” they asked, and Irene’s, “Oh, he’s not so bad…” response hardly added up to a rousing endorsement. But he was well meaning and he never raised his voice, and as a couple they blended in with the furniture of the district soon enough and after a while people stopped noticing the differences between them.
The marriage might not have been a great love-match but it produced six children, anyway – mostly active ones – who tended to treat their father like some mid-stream obstacle they could comfortably flow around. Their mother kept order with about equal shares of cuffs and kindness, but Griff often just looked baffled in the kids’ company, reacting a bit like the pigs when they ran into one of their litter and a kind of ‘friend or foe?’ perplexity momentarily creased their brows. The children’s upbringing, as well as the house’s upkeep, was nearly all left to their mother then – and sometimes it was too much for her. She was no domestic goddess and didn’t care who knew it, and the house could be looking like a bomb hit it, with dishes piled up in the sink and a mountain of washing in the laundry, but if she decided she’d had enough she’d down tools and get dressed up and go into town and be missing for the rest of the day. Poor Griff never knew when he might come home and be confronted by a shiny white fridge in the chaos of the kitchen, or a new dress slung over the back of a chair. And sometimes even that wasn’t enough: the sight of the cat with its head in the butter when Irene walked in the door, or a trail of oil Griff had just dripped through the house, could undo all the good the outing had done her. People said you could hear her halfway to Berri then. The cat and the kids would take cover – no one and nothing was safe until she got her first wave of outrage over with – and when it was, she’d sink into a chair with her longish face in her hands in a way that made it look like the pose might be permanent… Histrionically, she’d say: “Twenty years of this…” and shake her head despairingly, until something, her sense of the absurd maybe, saved her. “You don’t get that long for murder,” she might remind herself, and get up and go to the stove and leave Griff mumbling something would-be pacific in his grumbling, phlegmy, whiny sort of voice before he went potteringly on his way.
Which was about all he did: apart from driving the odd nail into something, or propping up part of the house with something pirated from somewhere else, he and exertion were near strangers. Some days he’d still start off with good intentions but then be waylaid; a 44- gallon drum of petrol would turn out to be empty or the pump on it wouldn’t work, or he couldn’t lay his hands on some grease, and he’d end up spending half the day wandering between the house and the shed with a piece of rag in his hand.
The house, perched on top of a hill, was the first one on the road into town, and at one time the council was concerned enough about the impression they felt it made on visitors to send the health inspector out to see if he could put some sort of order on it. The officer had to fight his way through the junk in the yard to get to the front door, but still came away empty handed in a sense: when it came to the crunch, he couldn’t pin down anything that was actually unsafe or unsanitary, and he copped an earful from Irene for his trouble as well. He had to rely on a visit later in the day to a house in town that had just put up a two-seater dunny in the backyard to recapture a sense of purpose in his job. Maybe because Griff and Irene’s family had never actually been hit squarely between the eyes by poverty – by the collapse of a family business, say – but by a more insidious process where bit by bit they’d got used to having less and less, the family didn’t really appear to be unhappy; none of the children ever seemed to feel like they had to apologise for their home or their parents. They invited school-teachers home for dinner and they turned up cheerfully: Irene’s cooking was legendary, and her wicked observations on local affairs often helped teachers from the city relax and show they could be human too. The kids were always having mates from school around as well, and girl-friends and boy-friends as they got older. It was like they were saying, This is it, here we are, take us or leave us. We’ve got no secrets. And any detractors they had might have just been envious.
Until 11-year-old Roger got sick.
He’d always been a quiet boy, the one who seemed not so much overawed by the rest of his family, as aware that that he’d be better off running his own race without them. Always a puzzle to his mother, he curated his own comic book collection, tinkered with his own crystal set…if he shared anything with anyone in the family it was only with his father, a sympathetic if mostly mute witness to the mechanical projects his son pursued at night out in the shed, and very occasional mentor on the few occasions when he managed to talk his son into coming with him to the other property to see the pigs. Like many solitary children Roger was slow to confide in others – or complain: a teacher noticed his lethargy (‘growing pains,’ the GP suggested) but he needed to collapse after a game of rounders at school, and be sent for blood tests, and a lumbar puncture – carried out without a local anaesthetic – “You’ll have to be very brave” – for the worst prognosis to be confirmed. The first transfusion he was given put the colour back in his cheeks, but wouldn’t last, his parents were reminded. The news reduced Griff to the sort of inarticulate protests doctors could comfortably ignore, but Irene reacted quite differently: shooing Griff away whenever she saw him brooding near her son and, when she discovered Roger’s big sister, Hilly, cuddling him in her bed one morning, scolding them both. She kept seeing hopeful signs in her son’s condition despite medical opinion, while reminding Roger of the part he had to play in his recovery: “You’ve got to help yourself too, you know son,” she said.
Notwithstanding that advice, Roger just got sicker, although even when he was looking like a ghost he didn’t whinge. When he was taken off to hospital for the last time, his mother was still reminding him about some school work she was going to bring in for him to finish, and at his funeral she was almost dry eyed. When someone tried to say something comforting to her at the graveside, she gave them a near-smirk and said, “Oh well, life goes on, I suppose.” Her laugh used to be a body shaking thing people found hard to resist, even when they were a target of it: now they edged back from its substitute. And then, once the formalities were over, she went home and changed her clothes like she was tucking the event away in the wardrobe with her black dress for good.
She didn’t leave the house for weeks after that though. Her oldest boy would sometimes come round during his lunch break from work and try to coax her to get off the lounge. “Come on Mum, look at the time. Don’t you want to…?” (do something-or-other) he’d suggest. He had a girlfriend by then, and probably would have liked to bring her home for tea. “Oh…” his mother would say, and pause as if she was giving the idea some thought, before she’d decide wearily, “I can’t be bothered,” and go back to some women’s magazine. About the only time she showed any of her old spark was when the local minister made a follow up visit one day. “Don’t come in here talking that tripe,” she said, waving him in the direction of the door. “Good day.”
Now that the horse had bolted, so to speak, the GP advised Griff to keep an eye on his wife, “in case she does something silly”. Griff just did his best to keep out of her way. When he heard that a bag of insecticide that had been sitting open in the shed for years might have been a suspect in Roger’s illness, he determined to get rid of it. By the time he’d finished sweeping it out of the shed he was all yellow; clothes, hair, face, eyelashes, the lot. It didn’t get a flicker of response from Irene.
The house seemed to drop its bundle as well then, almost as if it had been waiting for the chance. Squalor, as proprietorial as Griff’s pigs, settled in. Ceilings slumped; paint peeled; iron rippled on the roof. Irene’s younger kids had to start their days burrowing in a pile of clothes for something to wear to school and snatching at slices of days’ old bread on the kitchen table. They always looked like they could do with a bath too, and when the owner of the milk bar in Berri caught the two youngest boys pinching sweets in his shop one day, he dobbed them in to the police. Griff took a job at the hardware shop in town, to escape Irene’s attention, as much as anything, even if what he didn’t know about hardware would fill books. He got the job out of sympathy, but that didn’t stop customers complaining, ‘How do they keep him on?’ when they saw him hoicking himself around the shop.
Things might have dragged on like that indefinitely, if Griff hadn’t fortuitously ended them: he came home one night wearing the evidence of a post-work visit to the pigs and Irene, who’d been drifting around the kitchen in her dressing gown, confronted him. “You’re not coming inside like that,” she said flatly. It wasn’t the first time Griff had got that kind of welcome, and when he dutifully backed out the door mumbling an apology, that was par for the course too, but this time, while Irene was watching his half-hearted efforts to scrape the dung off his boots, something hardened in her and when Griff had another go at crossing the threshold, she barred his entry. “You know what,” she said, spreading her hands emphatically, “I don’t know why you bother coming home at all – you spend so much time with your damn pigs, why don’t you move in with them?”
The suggestion was rhetorical and Griff might still have dodged a bullet if he’d kept quiet, but in a pause that followed he tried to interject something pacific, and that only made things worse. “You know, I had a good look at you when you were farting around outside just now,” she said, “and I asked myself, ‘Why…?’”
Griff, still stuck outside, and in the middle of echoing, ‘Why…?” got over ridden: “How did I wind up here like this?” She shook her head. “ ‘Were things that bad at home?’ I keep asking myself. Was I that young and stupid? Why didn’t I just go away somewhere and have an abortion or something when you got me pregnant? I still might have met someone decent; someone might still have given me some sort of life…”
Her outburst might have been running out of steam, but when Griff half-heartedly protested, “Long while back, Irene…” it fired her up again. “Yeah – and I wasn’t even in love with you then,” she said savagely. “You must have known, surely. I never even liked you that much, if it comes to that – and now – look at you – you go hobbling round the place like one of your bloody pigs – you probably brought that disease home from them too – it makes me wish someone would knock you on the head – I can’t even stand the smell of you around me anymore, don’t you realise? Don’t you…?”
Her whole face was contorted by this time, and the audience of her children didn’t know where to look: when their mother finally retreated to her bed and lay there rocking her head from side to side they wondered if she was having some sort of fit.
When Griff finally managed to get cleaned up enough to present himself at his wife’s bedside, the best he could do was suggest: “Cup of tea?” But next day he was more productive: he got someone in to take away the last litter of piglets even though they were only a few weeks-old, and only knocked back an offer from the buyer to shoot their parents on their spot so he could unhitch the old door that had served as a stand-in gate forever, and tempt the pigs with a couple of bunches of grapes to come outside. Then, when they woke up to the fact that they were free to take the outside air, he waved them off down the hill towards the river, and went home, hoping, as men usually do after a domestic, that his wife would have cooled down by that time and things would go on as before.
But they didn’t. The morning after her scene, Irene got up and for the first time since Roger died resumed something like her old routine, but Griff was never going to be reincluded in it. Whatever Irene’s girlfriends once thought about her and Griff’s partnership, it had actually turned out much like theirs, with habit and kids and grandkids about all that was holding them together. With Roger dying even that seemed to have lost its grip on Irene. Yet she was still stuck. She declared her intentions at one point of moving out, or making Griff move out, but after a couple of half-hearted efforts they went back to living together inside the house and the small island of land left around it; scrounging meals – abandoning rooms eventually when ceilings collapsed – wandering like ghosts through the building, and merging with it in a way.
Griff had a few years start on Irene and was understandably the first to be let down by them. He’d been losing the plot for a while apparently, only no one had taken much notice, but when he was found wandering on the river flats one day, claiming to be looking for something – what, he wouldn’t say – someone gave him a lift home and felt they ought to tell Irene where he’d turned up. Irene shrugged, and did keep some sort of an eye on him for a while, realising she wouldn’t have to do it forever. Eventually, old Griff was institutionalised but Irene refused to go anywhere. Children and grandchildren would visit her at home now and then, but never found it a lot of fun. Irene would listen to the latest achievements of a grandchild in a detached sort of way, and occasionally hint at some irony in the account, but nothing much made her smile. No one could have seen in her the girl who used to go to parties with half parted lips and a look of expectation on her face as if she thought something special was going to happen to her. When, Hilly her eldest girl, came up from Adelaide to see her mother and stayed with her for a couple of days, she was disturbed by her mother getting up in the dark and poking around and calling out in the children’s empty rooms.
Curiously, old Griff seemed to get his second wind for a while when he was put into a Home. Given half a chance, when he managed to pin someone down in there – staff or visitors, because most of the other inmates were past following a conversation, or wouldn’t wear him – he’d talk to them about pigs. Apropos of nothing except the prompts of memory, he’d tell his captives how cheerful his animals used to be (‘cheerful’ was the word he used) –“they’d always come up and say g’day to you,” he said – about how they were always ready to have a go at something new he put in their trough – “except oranges”– how they’d sometimes have a game with things he threw in their pen… how as a breed, he recalled more seriously, they never seemed to hold things against people, even after some of the things that were done to them – although that made him remember how the old sow behaved straight after her last lot of piglets went. “It was like she was crying,” he said, damp eyed himself, while looking from one indifferent witness to another – no one had ever wanted to hear about his hobby in the past and they weren’t likely to start now – “just like she was crying. My wife’ll tell you the same when she comes in,” he’d insist, though Irene and the children had all become such strangers there by then that when Irene took an overdose it was left to Hilly to make another trip up from Adelaide and let her father know.
There’d been nothing much left of Roger when he died. He couldn’t stand to be touched and cried out when the nurses tried to move him. Well before then his parents had been told there was nothing more that could be done, but the hospital staff was still going through the motions, and his father was still clinging to what he must have known was only, and on a fantastic level, hope (a bit like the used-car dealer who goes out and buys a new suit when everything in the yard is about to be repossessed). As befitting the boy’s nature there were no last requests from him. When his father, inadequate as ever, asked, “You feel like some breakfast, son…?” at five in the morning when a trolley rattled past, Irene snapped, “Oh, for God’s sake!” at him. The best the little boy could do was shake his head; beyond revulsion for everything – and maybe especially, these red-eyed, warring parties at his bedside – who couldn’t keep him with them, and wouldn’t let him go.