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In Mine Own Heart
By Alan Marshall
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1963 Alan Marshall
All rights reserved.
Mr Harold Shrink, the husband of the boarding house proprietress, told me that there was something to be said for walking on crutches since it meant I would never marry.
We were standing in the kitchen of his wife's establishment in Imperial Street, Brunswick, and Mr Shrink had proffered the observation after reflecting for a moment on a remark made by his wife as she left the room:
'You can't afford to waste time talking,' she said sharply.
It was a remark the implications of which extended far beyond the little world embraced by Mr Shrink's talkativeness. It evoked a sharp awareness of his lack of money, the difficulties of getting boarders and a consideration of the landlord's claim for higher rent. It also demanded, for the preservation of Mr Shrink's confidence in himself, a quick removal of guilt and responsibility from his ineffectual shoulders to those of his wife.
The remark on marriage that Mr Shrink imagined explained his failures, depressed me since, at that moment, I was awaiting the arrival of a young man, a friend of mine, in whose company I intended visiting a cafe for the purpose of pirating girls.
Mr Shrink's lack of faith in my future as a married man suggested such expeditions were futile and I found my enthusiasm departing before misgivings.
I sometimes had doubts about the conclusions I had drawn from my experiences but they were always transitory, since such doubts never rose from a development of my reasoning but were introduced like an irritant into my confidence by people with views similar to Mr Shrink's. They were the stings retarding purpose experienced by all men and women and I was learning to ignore them.
I had been boarding in Imperial Street for two months. The boarding house was a two-storey brick building that sat stolidly in the centre of a block of land much too small to preserve its past dignity as a gentleman's residence of distinction.
When it had been built, Imperial Street was a thoroughfare down which proud horses drew the carriages of residents, and the land upon which it stood extended to Sydney Road a hundred yards away. Here Imperial Street joined the busy highway, its quiet entrance tempting an escape from the urgency of Sydney Road's life to the calm of an area where problems of survival were all solved and security ensured. The houses that graced it were widely separated by gardens and areas of grass, and it could be followed through to paddocks where cattle grazed and wildflowers grew and where the rattle and clamour of Sydney Road were only a murmur.
But Brunswick needed a railway and long lines of workmen swinging picks and wielding shovels had long ago divided the street at the far side of the big brick building. A post-and-rail fence was built across the road, confining the railway and forming a dead end to the now tiny street.
But people could see across the fence and the rails to where a truncated Imperial Street could still claim a relationship with its entrance to Sydney Road. Then a station was built athwart the street's end and the barrier was complete.
Imperial Street now ended here against a post-and-rail fence and a sullen brick building. Between the station building and the fence was a strip of land on which the bleached grass of summer, matted, with stalks askew, formed a thick covering through which the green spikes of each spring's new grasses pushed their way upward to stand erect beside the dead, quivering stalks that had seeded them.
Scattered through and upon this mat were empty, rain-washed cigarette packets, bursting butts of cigarettes, crumpled paper, discarded wrappings from cakes of chocolate and wrinkled silver paper in the tiny hollows of which dust had collected, absorbed the rain and hardened into grey deposits of clay.
Imperial Street was now unsuitable for the homes of gentlemen. Their owners left for places where the smoke from factory chimneys did not drift close to the ground on damp mornings and where clothes upon the line would never be speckled with soot.
But the presence of a railway station had increased the value of the land, a value that was not established by the past patronage of wealthy men but by the present needs of the poor. Those who owned the land built tiny houses along the street's frontage, weatherboard houses, twelve feet wide with railed verandas that skirted the footpath and galvanised-iron roofs that gradually rusted into mottled shades of brown.
They were three-roomed houses, the entrance to each room being gained from the one in front of it, and the rents were cheap. Poor people came to these houses to live and soon Imperial Street was a street of children. On summer nights they filled the roadway with leaping and skipping shadows, shadows that laughed and shouted and chased each other, watched by women leaning on veranda rails.
There was no division between the houses except where a cobbled alley cut through them to cluttered yards at the rear of the buildings.
The cobbled stones of the alleys were ringed with dampness and the potholes of the roadway were often filled with water. It was a street in decay, but life and vitality were here, and a sense of living.
Standing aloof at the street's end the big brick building in which I boarded was the only link with the past the street contained. It had gradually been robbed of its spacious grounds which had shrunk back towards it, losing trees and shrubs to the little houses until, finally protected from further losses by a high paling fence, it clung to a solitary palm tree and some dusty shrubs that had attended the house when it had been a gentleman's residence.
Now it was a boarding house, shabby and apologetic, leased by whoever could make it pay, and the palm tree that once had proclaimed its owner's status was now pathetic and inapposite. Its harsh, rustling crown stood poised a few feet away from the cast-iron lace-work that enclosed the balcony, and boarders standing there could look into its dusty heart.
They were collar-and-tie workers — travellers, salesmen, clerks, who found in large boarding houses a sense of freedom and independence their homes or smaller places had failed to supply.
There were fifteen of them, all men, all single, who at meal times ate hurriedly if they were going out or with a brooding thoughtfulness if they had no girl to beckon them.
I rarely stayed in even though I did not have a girl to give each night some joyful expectancy. But I had need of such a girl and I went out to develop a state of mind without which no such companionship was possible.
I was seeking to free my mind from a feeling of being apart, of being physically different. The level on which I felt society had placed me was lower than that of other men and I was trying to overcome, by conquest of an attitude, a tendency I had to accept this existence on a lower level of appeal.
I had to prove to myself, not to others, that girls could accept my right to pay suit to them. It was a problem confronting all men but in the cripple it was a much more difficult and painful one.
I had learnt that confidence based on the acclaim of others, for which so many uncertain people strive, does not inspire a lasting strength of purpose, an embracing resolution, but increases one's vulnerability to every whispered criticism and shade of opposition, to every defeat.
In building up the source of their confidence such men build up the source of their despairs. When strength comes from within, it is available whenever it is needed; its development does not parallel the nurturing of an origin that could destroy it.
My ambition was to become a writer. To achieve this I had to play the game, not view it from the grandstand. Normal relationships between men and women, the knowledge in one that they were acceptable to the other, was a requisite to all achievement that demanded an understanding of human beings. It was necessary also for the development of character.
The boarding house in Imperial Street, Brunswick, in which I at last found myself, gave opportunities for extending my relationships with people. I wanted to be friends with men under whose guidance I would learn how to associate with girls. The numerous boarding houses through which I had passed were places where each boarder gradually became subject to pressures from the proprietress. They were expected to conform, to adopt a code of behaviour and an accord of ideas that became the establishment and increased the proprietress' feeling of power.
The women who ran these places often possessed no other interest save their boarders and they studied them, watched them from behind curtains, pried into their affairs and gradually sought to control them.
They divided the night hours into periods of declining virtue, being convinced that those who arrived home before II p.m. after a night out were virtuous; those who returned between this hour and midnight, had been playing with fire, while those who sneaked in later were steeped in vice.
I never stayed very long at these places.
'When they begin opening your letters — that's the time to leave,' a fellow-boarder once told me.
Mr and Mrs Shrink were too concerned with the problem of survival in a competitive boarding house world to become involved in the private lives of their boarders. They lived apart from them. It was a large house and the section in which they lived was cut off from the rest of the building by a narrow passageway down which the boarders never ventured. From these quarters the Shrinks emerged each morning with brisk, purposeful steps, their answer to ageing joints and onerous obligations.
The Shrinks always demonstrated resolution by decisive movement they were incapable of sustaining, since its continuance was dependent on the reality of a goal neither felt they would ever reach.
They parted in the hall, Mr Shrink going to the dining-room where he raised the blinds and made perfunctory changes in the position of the cutlery he had arranged on the table the night before, Mrs Shrink to the kitchen where she filled the kettle and began frying chops.
When Mr Shrink joined her he cut the bread and made the toast. He stood in silence before the toaster, gazing at the slices of bread but not thinking about them. He turned the slices mechanically, buttered them and piled them on a plate while his mind wandered off on excursions, the nature of which he sometimes revealed to me.
'You want about fifty or sixty quid to start off,' he once said. 'I was saying to the wife, I was saying, it'd get us in the clear with none of this worry or that. What you do — a bloke was telling me about it. He's worked it for years — What you do is to go round the auctions. You know ... like the one in Fitzroy. Not many dealers go there because they think you'd get no good stuff in Fitzroy. They go to Toorak an' that.
'Now, in Fitzroy, this bloke tells me, he's picked up bags of tools — saleable stuff, see. Blokes lose them an' that sort of thing. Or they pop them. Like that ... They end up there. Sometimes their wives shoot 'em in to get a few quid. There's everything. This bloke has seen suites of furniture sold there for a fiver. No bids, see ... Well, you buy up like that and stack 'em in some room or other you've got, then you advertise them in the Age — separate like, of course. You treble your money every time. This bloke was telling me he bought a brand new electric kettle there for five bob. You wouldn't read about it. This bloody boarding house business — there's nothing in it. Only work. It's no good to any-one. You never get out. You can't even go down to the pub but what you're wanted for some bloody thing or other. Aw well ...'
Mr Shrink was a spare, grey-haired man with a fierce nose and an unobtrusive manner. He walked into rooms, pivoted, and walked out again. He straightened pictures, coughed apologetically before knocking on bedroom doors with the bill. He watered the aspidistras with a flourish, made requests in a whisper as if they were confidences withheld from his wife.
'Turn out the light as early as you can, won't you?'
The deep lines engraved upon his face, his worried eyes, suggested a man who had suffered but they were really the product of discontent. He walked with a slight limp, the result of an accident in a factory fifteen years before, an accident that confined him to his bed for several months.
Mr Shrink found convalescence quiet agreeable and once having realised that his wife could keep him by taking in boarders, he decided to remain in that state until such time as he won a lottery or became wealthy by shrewd dealing.
It was irksome waiting for this moment of release, especially under the eye of a wife who was increasingly revealing aspects of martyrdom, but it was preferable to working under the eye of a boss.
Mrs Shrink was resigned and tired and older than her husband. Her eyes always carried an appeal. She looked at you from behind wisps of grey hair that clung to a kitchen-damp forehead and you liked her. There must have been a time when she believed in the impermanence of his incapacitation, but that was long ago and once she realised that it was not an inability to work that made him give up a quest for it but an intention never to work again, she accepted her role of provider with resignation.
She was typical of many boarding house keepers I had met, dependable women with kitchen-boy husbands who were dedicated to keeping their consorts because of an affection even they could not explain.
The boarders liked Mrs Shrink. She was tolerant and never interrogated them. She never saw herself as desirable and could meet their girls without envy, with a glance that was not assessing. But within her one sometimes sensed the presence of a girl standing on a threshold.
When serving the breakfast of a boarder who had entertained a girl in his room the night before, she looked at him with increased interest and with the vestige of a smile upon her face.
My first meeting with the Shrinks took place at ten o'clock at night. I had rung their door-bell with some urgency and their delay in answering it established in my impatient mind an unattractive picture of the people who ran the place.
The taxi in which I had fled from a boarding house a quarter of a mile away was waiting at the gate and the hire of it was rising.
The door opened and Mrs Shrink confronted me. Behind her stood her husband. The ringing of the bell at this hour was evidently unusual and Mr Shrink must have decided to accompany his wife to the door, his irritation at being forced to leave his bed having produced in him a temporary state of resolution that he wished to demonstrate to her.
'What do you want?' he asked sharply over his wife's shoulder.
'Well?' asked Mrs Shrink gently, as if her husband had not spoken.
I explained that I was seeking board and lodging but the expression on Mrs Shrink's face, though admitting that this was probably so, conveyed a suspicion that I was a man it might not be wise to have as a boarder. She could see the taxi waiting at the gate and the time of my arrival suggested flight of some kind — a row at home, probably.
'It's rather late to go looking for board, isn't it?' she asked. 'Call round and see me tomorrow.'
'I want a bed for tonight,' I persisted, then with a gesture I added impatiently, 'I'm all right. Take another look at me.'
The quality of a smile touched her face for a moment and she said, 'I have a small single room opening out on to the driveway. Come in and have a look at it.'
The room suited me and I moved in gratefully for I was, as Mrs Shrink suspected, a man on the run. I was fleeing from Mrs Edward Bloomfield.
Mrs Edward Bloomfield owned an exclusive boarding house in Brunswick Road with accommodation for four gentlemen of excellent character, preferably studying for a profession. They must come from good homes.
This was how the advertisement in the Age put it. I read it as one would a news item announcing the birth of a rhinoceros at the zoo. I would visit the zoo under such circumstances and gripped by a similar spirit of curiosity I presented myself at Mrs Edward Bloomfield's home the next evening, conscious of my lack of qualifications but determined to brazen it out.
The house was a double-fronted brick house with a tiled veranda and a heavy door encrusted with petals of old paint the edges of which had shrunk up and away from the wood. A cast-iron goat's head with a swinging beard formed the door-knocker. I beat a tattoo with the beard, then gazed at the goat in silence.
Excerpted from In Mine Own Heart by Alan Marshall. Copyright © 1963 Alan Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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