In the refuge of the park I am confronted by the Tree of Life.
A tree fern towers above me, a monument to eternity. The giant stands dancing in the wind, its feathered shoots coiled in anticipation of greenness, ready to spring forth, to pop and froth like champagne into the sky. Shoots spreading heavenwards ready themselves to drink in sun and rain, that mother’s-milk cascading from the sky.
Branches, now in middle-age, wave in the breeze, tinges of yellow and brown appearing around the edges. Their beauty has been in their living, the witnessing of life in these gardens. Below, the skeleton of a branch has fallen over. It claws at the earth, its fronds, all traces of green now gone, crumble into dust like a statue in bronze from the Rome we have lost.
A gardener appears, preparing to amputate those signs that time no longer wants, but which remain here on display. With his machete, he kills in one stroke the beauty that supported any suggestion of history. The spectacle revealing the cycle of life has been removed for the convenience of visitors. Death must be concealed, here in this sanctuary for the living.
Copacabana, like a hot teenager on Spring Break… Around rock cliffs at Ipanema, the youthful rhythm of sun, sand and string bikinis still moves to a samba beat. Revelling six-packs in tight, bright trunks above muscled brown calves casually kick balls, throw Frisbees into the surf, while heavenly bodies with fragrant hair and warm, white smiles drape themselves across the sand, each curved buttock accurately exposed to the sun in perpetual worship. Rio parades through the calendar of carnival, shouting, swaying, jumping and diving to the inescapable chorus of relentless celebration. Her undulating beats paved into waves of black and white mosaic marble rippled out in crazy patterns across the pulsing promenade, hovering like musical notes above the blue Atlantic.
Rio, like an aging harlot struggling to rise before noon, squinting behind dark glasses into the glare of relentless sun, lighting another cigarette, watching parading samba-schools streaming by below. Rio, like the hollow ribcage of the ghetto child whose nose is never wiped, picking through rum-drenched refuse after nightly street revelry. Rio, whose oozing gutters smell like raw petrol spilt from rusting tail pipes mixed with the blood of drug wars in the favelas, rising into shimmering heatwaves of ghosts. Rio, like a penniless girl shuffling back to a shanty town in wet feathers after the last carnival parade, weeping into grey dawn rain.
Driving north past retreating suburbs against the morning traffic was the best part of the job. The low lime green hills and pungent tea tree forests rising up beside the winding single lane highway were a welcome relief from the jumble of industrial warehouses, scrap metal yards and billboards that littered the outskirts of town.
A stillness descended on the hot concrete road as the traffic slowly thinned, until at last I had the highway to myself, and could admire the pattern of grey anthills punctuating the scrub as it flew past, keeping time with the rhythm of the music on the radio.
I never knew the actual address, but had to judge the distance about a mile past where the water pipeline running alongside the road all the way from town suddenly rose up to straddle a steep slope on the left, then watch for an unmarked turnoff onto an orange dirt road. Just after making the turn, you could see the broken down sign for Shady Glen Poultry Farm on the right, collapsed into the scrub after the last cyclone. No one ever checked whether I started work by 9 am each day.
I’d push the heavy trolley into the corrugated iron warehouse where hundreds of once-white birds were housed in tiny multistorey cages. Trays at the bottom caught the eggs as they rolled down after being layed. These warm eggs had to be collected by hand, then cleaned, sorted and boxed by lunchtime. Feed trays also had to be filled. There was time after that to read a book and eat a packed lunch under a tree, before working through an identical afternoon shift by knock-off time at five.
All of this seems idyllic until you factor in the sound of a thousand screaming birds whenever anyone entered their sweltering warehouse – a terrifying collective shriek that didn’t stop until after that person had vacated this prison. Those birds feared and hated human beings for good reason. Shady Glen Poultry Farm was their Auschwitz.