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.
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.
The other day in a tea shop, on my way to a stressful meeting, I called on my ancestors to accompany me so that the upcoming discussion might prove beneficial for all involved. Often when I call on the Old Ones to gather around, they’ll show me an outward sign to reassure me of their presence.
The waitress instantly dropped an empty plate which crashed into a thousand pieces on the café floor. Later, the ceiling lights dimmed in the closed meeting room to produce an eerie twilight, then plunged us all into dramatic darkness before flashing on again.
In both situations, everyone in the room first looked at each other in surprise, then smiled at their shared experience. The waitress grinned broadly as the other café patrons and I helped gather the shattered porcelain, and those flashing lights in the meeting room prompted spontaneous solutions, transforming hardened officials into jovial allies.
Possibly the one thing that’s more gratifying than sharing a laugh with your ancestors is being able to pass on their mad sense of humour to the descendants who’ll follow you. I only hope I can do it with as much flare.