Blesok no. 47, March-April, 2006
Everyone saw it coming, but that did not lessen the small shock when the initial phone call came, followed by the formal letter with its proffered regrets and the terminology of rationalisation, which is another word for rationing. Rationing is something Bernard just remembered from the Second World War and after, when he was still a small kid. Rationing meant regulations and queues and going without. Sugar rationing was what he remembered, and the time he was almost scalped by his mother because of the experiment he and Beverley-over-the-road had been doing with home-made lollies. The lollies were a failure, the sugar was wasted – he still remembered his mother scraping crunchy remnants off the kitchen floor and swearing, actually swearing. Beverley was barred from the kitchen.
He had spent a great deal of his time rationing, if you think of it. Rationing, not rationalising. There was that period in secondary school when he undertook a long regime of rationing the aniseed balls. He cannot remember why, now, aniseed balls so obsessed him, but he collected them in their hundreds. He stored them under his bed in old Vegemite bottles. And he rationed them out to himself, one at a time, no more than three a day. There were only two of his friends who were ever allowed one aniseed ball from his store. They were Bill and Kenneth, and they swapped precious Malay States stamps for them. Even then Bernard was a sort of Banker. When his father took him to the Commonwealth the first time. he was fascinated by the Tellers, doling out coins and paper money.
Why aniseed balls? That’s too far back even to worry himself with. It was a phase. Like the later decision to ration the number of times a year he allowed himself to go to the pictures. A year. Not a month or a week: even then he had a sense for the breath-span, as it were, of financial accountability.
Later, it was not really surprising that he rationed the number of hours his own kids were allowed to watch TV. Even last year he had noted – or Jean had drawn it to his attention – that instinctively he had rationed the number of minutes he permitted himself to read the morning newspaper. She had timed him. At five past eight, after the ABC news, until 14 minutes past eight. Bernard scanned the news like clockwork. Even if he had not reached past page three he would fold the paper (four squares) and give one of his little hrrrrmphs, and reach for the car keys. His official day had begun.
What on earth would he do once he had been forced into retirement? The prospect now stared him in the face and had done so since that friendly phone call. He had thought to avoid all the tension and pressure of competition and wrangling for position when he had volunteered to manage the Cunningham branch. He had no ambitions for Head Office or even one of the larger centres. Cunningham was a small town but when he moved there it was one of the quiet little money earners. A number of small but profitable mines had their offices in the town, and there were the woollen mills and the butter factory, whose brand name was known throughout South East Queensland. The rich alluvial flats were first recognized by the explorer Logan, and most of the farmers in the district now had contracts with Heinz. A tidy little town, and the small but flourishing shopping centre reflected that. The year Bernard came in to manage the Commercial Bank of Australia, Cunningham was named Tidy Town of the Year.
After the Bank of New South Wales takeover Bernard retained his position, and his unwillingness to move was acknowledged. The Branch maintained strong business, and because the CBA was in there first, it had local loyalties. Not even the Commonwealth had taken a foothold, and the Wales had always been only a sub agency. Well, that takeover was a ‘rationalisation’ if you like, but despite the name change all the old customers agreed it was only a surface thing. Old Fred Morrow had bought up six large chequebooks so that he could continue using the old Bank name – Commercial, the proper name – in perpetuity. Or at least until he worked his way through them, which they both calculated would be four years. Good old Fred.
Bernard was one of the ones who had lobbied against the name change to Westpac. Perhaps that had been, secretly, when all the rot started and the Inspectors grew less accommodating. But he had kept his ear to the ground and he was darned sure that Westpac would never stick. He lost the Ward account to the Commonwealth in the first month. Then all the Schinkler family accounts, the whole 18 of them. In a small town, that hurts.
But nobody was to know the stranglehold of ‘rationalisation’, which had now come to mean, in the district, today, simply the drain to Head Office, down to the City. It had begun almost imperceptibly, perhaps because all the mines closed down one by one. Pit mining had become uneconomical and the State Government was giving concessions to open cut operations and their Japanese contracts. Then who would have believed the woollen mills would ever close? They had been exporting good quality stuff to markets around the world, it was boasted, though their domestic blanket brand was the stuff of their existence. Nobody foresaw the rise of the doona. Or the cutting of trade tariffs. That was the first nail in the coffin. Even the two real estate agents began to feel the pinch then.
A too depressing story. Bernard had survived it all, and some of the recent foreclosures had really distressed him. How could he face old Terry Maloney at the bowls club any more? He gave up competition bowling. He nearly gave up Rotary. When the Commonwealth closed down he did resign from the Business and Professionals. It had become a hollow farce, hardly enough for Whiteheads Café to bother with the catering. When Jean started to complain about the empty shopfronts he felt almost personally accused. He spent hours in his backyard vegetable patch. Getting his fingers into the soil soothed him, it had become his obsession. Though he rationed himself. After work, 5.30 to 6.30. Then he showered and was ready for the 7 o’clock news which was always depressing.
Bernard was not, normally, a gloomy man. His long success in the bank had been, he was certain, because he had a deep cheery voice and he laughed a lot. He heard all the jokes circulating and delighted in passing them on as if he had just invented them himself. He had been often asked to give a speech at christenings and weddings and engagement parties because everyone knew he could keep them giggling and they would begin to relax. Secretly, he remembered some of those events and the long rows of weathered faces stuck with their own glooms, and sometimes it had been a bit of an effort, but when he did get them giggling and loosening up it was its own reward. He had felt his power and, being Bernard, he had rationed it wisely, not allowing himself to be carried away with his success.
He was known as a modest man, an ordinary bloke; but one who could tell a joke, even a clean one, and the women adored him.
It was not surprising, then, that he found himself out in the vegetable patch, the memory of the official notification still gripping his throat. He would tell his wife later. Jean didn’t need to know just yet. She was talking about the trip to Port Douglas and somehow he didn’t have the heart. Later, later.
As always, he slipped out of his suit and tugged on the old tweed trousers that hung on the back of the toolhouse door, with their braces and the leather belt (just to make sure). He buttoned up the flies. These old pants still had flies. He found the old shirt, one of half dozen or so he kept down there for the gardening, with its frayed collar and the missing button. He felt comfortable in these old duds and ready for the digging.
There were the potatoes that must be ready now. The soil down that end was clayey and had taken a lot of breaking up with fresh compost and some fertilizer; the spuds should be whoppers, he estimated. Two weeks ago he had made a tentative dig and resisted the temptation. Patience was always one of his virtues. Now it would be rewarded. He measured out the broadest spade, the one that his father had given him, back in the early days. The old man had been a tyrant, but it was amazing the number of things Bernard still retained from then, and the number of actions and habits that endured. Even the gardening. As a kid he had rebelled – or he imagined he had rebelled, though it was simply a matter of demanding some time for himself on a Saturday morning. When he did force his father to give him time off (one weekend in four) he found himself bored and with nothing to do. Even his stamp collection seemed hollow and worthless. It was an evening thing, it did not feel right to be a Saturday Morning pastime. He had returned, of his own accord, to assisting his father, who then gave him his own bed to look after. He still remembered the pure joy when he dug up his first Bernard potatoes, as the old man called them. They made a ceremony that very night, a special Bernard potato dish, with butter and a topping of cheese. It had set him on his way.
Still smiling to himself, remembering all that, Bernard ambled down to the back bed. Was he humming just then? He turned the first sod. Yes, the soil was still pretty raw clay, but not as bad as when he first turned it over and of course he should have put in more compost but it was a start. It was a shale mixed in with the clay down this end. That made it harder and was probably why he never bothered to prepare this corner of the allotment for veggies until now. It had remained grass.
Shale was still mixed in with the clay and the compost, and the first potatoes he uncovered seemed to nestle under and around those lumps of pure rock, or perhaps even to split them up with their subterranean energies and movement. Perhaps a couple of seasons with spuds and they would do the work of their own accord, saving him effort with the pick and mattock like this time last year when he first began the bed’s preparations. A bed had to be dug, and aired, and composted, and then dug again, and given time to settle, his father had always said. Bernard had rationed his activities and the result was now paying off. The first spuds are generous, more than he hoped for, if he is honest. They will keep, though; they are not the starchy variety that rots easily.
Digging for half an hour, almost ready to call it a day (he looks at his watch: 6.15, give it another 10), Bernard rests on the shovel and wipes the sweat off his brow and the top of his head. It is bald now and his weekly barber visit has become a farce, but old Ernie needs the business. It is one of the little duties that stuck. It is an old habit. Gazing idly down he can see a potato he has missed, among the upturned rubble and shards. He bends down.
Stuck to the tuber with clay there is a rather large, flat stone. With clay sticky hands Bernard wrenches it off and is about to toss it over to the fence, where he has thrown several other larger stones. Something catches his eye. He looks closer. The potato had split the shale – two pieces fall neatly apart in his hand. He rubs his eyes. He wipes one hand on the old trousers and pulls out his spectacles from the buttoned-up shirt pocket (Too many times he has had to slouch back to the shed for them. He knows how to rationalise his movements, a real time and motion expert). Putting them on his nose he looks closer.
It is a fossil. A fossilised sprig of leaves. Not a fern, something larger than that. More like the leaves of the Queensland Kauri Pine in the Municipal Gardens. A multipennate sprig, he thinks, remembering from somewhere. Seven, no eight, leaves neatly branching out from a single stem. They are remarkably lifelike, almost as if they had not been underground long enough to rot or decay. And that is the point: the slow process of earth, of weight and heat and enlosure have taken this one twig of an ancient tree and pressed it to its heart. It has been immortalized. Fossilized.
Bernard stares at it for a long time. Something as ephemeral as a single twig of a tree, no doubt one of thousands of trees that had grown and lived here sometime, something that had seemed ordinary and simply part of the busy or lazy life of the valley, Now it was singled out. Now it was made special. All of the endless days, one like another, and he was able to see them as a preparation for this, this accidental uncovering, this discovery. And he had made it. It was his. Discovery is not the new, or the novel – it is the recognition.
It was not easy to describe what he had found, even to himself. Bernard’s jokes had not prepared him. He found himself trying to uncover fossil jokes; he was already thinking of how he might try it out with Jean first, and then even make it part of his line with the customers, who must be told of the information in that letter and the closure of the bank and the end of the eighty-five years of continual commerce that it represented. He must indeed think of how to break the news lightly, how to ease the pain.
The potato had broken the slab of shale lightly, to uncover the fossil. It was not Bernard, it was part of the underground life of the spud. The fossil was part of the underground life of the soil, that was more like it. The whole place was full of forgotten or hidden histories, none of it was virgin soil, none of it was meaningless. Grinning to himself now, Bernard moved automatically up to the house, ten minutes early, and with his working boots still on. He tramped into the kitchen as he was, without the surface washing that always preceded the shower. He stomped over the floral carpet of the living room. His wife was setting the table. They always ate at the main table even though the kids have long left them. It was one of their routines.
“I found this,” he announces, but Jean sees only an ochre-coloured slip of rock. When he pointed out the fossil and the seven – no eight – leaves with the stem almost as precise in its fibres and veins as a living twig, she is about to say ‘Really’ and then chide him. But something about his look, almost boyish and wide-eyed, makes Jean remember, quite suddenly, the young man she had first courted and who had to be nudged into marriage. Those had been exhilarating days and she had felt the first surge of fulfilment.
“Should you advise somebody? The Museum perhaps?” she says, instead. And they both grow rather excited, as if they had unearthed some real treasure. Almost as if they had unearthed a Mastadon Tooth or the shoulder of a Pterodactyl.
Later, Bernard looked up the World Book Encyclopaedia that had not been touched since the kids, and could find nothing that might classify their fossil. It was a tree, they decided, not a shrub or a grass or a creeper. But that was only because it reminded him so much of the Kauri leaves. That night he stayed up unusually late and they talked about the news which had broken upon him earlier. He finally was able to broach that with his wife.
He had not mentioned the telephone call two days before. He had lived with that contained in his procedures and his habits. He had rationed himself carefully. It had remained inside. It had fermented.
When it did come out, finally, in the long talk around the table as the gravy grew cold and the steak bones were declaring themselves and the slivers of fat were congealing on the sides of their plates, Bernard was quite open; he almost made it a joke, though he did not call himself an old fossil and he did not actually utter the word ‘retirement’. Jean realized that Port Douglas was out of the question. She had always felt they were living on credit.
But it was possible to discuss their future. That was like a burden lifted, like a long weight of clay that over the past two days had weighed down this news upon him. He did not speak of himself at all, really; he spoke about the town and the economic effects of the Bank‘s closure. He joked that the only person to benefit would be the Shell Service Station. Everyone would have to drive into Somerset to do their banking. And their shopping. Fuel usage would increase. “That’s if anyone can afford to pay for their petrol,” he added, and they both laughed as if that were a joke. Shut-down. Closure. Even as they discused it they could not believe it.
“What will happen to the records?” Jean asked.
“They will go into archives,” Bernard answered, but that did not encompass the history of the whole town as expressed in those figures, lists and records. It would be submerged and forgotten.
The fossil had been washed of its clay, very carefully. It sat on one of the Noritake platters for most of the meal, and after the long talk and the almost delighted realization that they had missed the TV news and the 7.30 Report as well as Quantum, Bernard had picked it up yet again. Why did he feel so elated? Why did a commonplace thing like an unearthed fossil – in a district well known for its fossil potential, hadn’t the University sent students here for decades? – why did it leave him feeling – what?
Positive, was the only word that came to him, but it was other than that, more than that. He could not explain it, even to himself, but it made him feel curiously connected.
“It’s valuable to you, though. To us.” And Jean passed him the Noritake platter, which he handled carefully, though his thoughts were elsewhere.
The person at the museum was cautious but just a little responsive. Could he bring it in for identification? Was he ever in Brisbane? Very well, the week after next, then.
Bernard was just a little regretful when the Museum took it from him. “You’ve heard of the Wollemi Pine? The one they discovered in Wollemi National Park a few years back, that they thought extinct for millenia? Related to the Bunya and the Hoop Pine and the Kauri. It was known only from fossils. Well, I’m not saying this is a fossil of a Wollemi Pine but we’d like to do tests. Tell you the truth, Bernard (why were these public servant types always so familiar?) I’m just a little bit excited myself. It must be exciting for you, too, if you have uncovered something really interesting?”
But the excitement had been subsumed by the ordinary events of living and confronting his future and his customers who had all been sympathetic though quietly angry. Bernard had forgotten the moment of discovery and that long animated conversation at the dining room table, when he and Jean had been close in a way that both seemed almost to have forgotten.
He had even forgotten to gather up the freshly harvested potatoes until the next evening. They had enjoyed them, though, and they were not really surprised that Bernard poked further, but had turned up no new fossils.
The Museum never returned the treasure, and, indeed, Bernard never discovered what they finally made of it. When his garden bed had been dug up and thoroughly prepared a second time, Bernard planned to grow legumes. Then, the following year, it would again be potatoes.
The day that the bank closed its doors, finally, he decided to make it a picnic, under the Kauri Pine in the Town Gardens. Bernard’s potato salad would be remembered. Nobody had turned up yet from Central Office to look after the official bank archives, which Bernard had labelled, tabulated and prepared according to a system that had already been forgotten in the big offices in the city.
But at the last minute Bernard knew he had a final duty to his customers. All his scrupulous personal notes and annotations on every Bank client over his entire career at this Branch – a veritable history of the town – had been kept in the red filing cabinet in his office. How could he allow all that to be consigned to some dusty vault or even a shredding machine in an anonymous basement?
Bernard carefully conveyed his alphabetical files to the little back sewing room which he now made into an office in his own home. For the first month after the Bank Premises had been locked and the building stood empty and dusty Bernard went through all these files and memos, discarding a few, reorganising others. He would dress in his suit and business tie each morning and even, for a little while, made his ritual local visits – the weekly barber, the newsagent, morning coffee every second day in Whiteheads Café with the Postmaster and the Solicitor and the local Police Inspector. But his records claimed him, finally.
Much later, after he had done everything possible to tabulate and finalize all his records, he was watching The Gardening Show with his wife one evening and was intrigued by a demonstration of composting that used wads of old papers. They disintegrated with surprising speed under a mulch or a load of good heavy earth. The demonstration featured how a clay patch had been rendered malleable and suitable for roses.
The next morning Bernard went out early, in his old gardening clothes so that even his wife was surprised. He spent an hour digging and preparing. Then he went to the little sewing room and came out with the first of the dun-coloured manilla folders. Carefully he layered them, one by one, in alphabetical order. Then he applied the half broken-up clods of clay interspersed with some rough sand from the ancient childrens’ playpit. He covered it all with what he could find of mulch from the compost heap. He rubbed his hands together and went indoors.
The next morning again he dressed in his gardening shirt and the old saggy tweeds. Without thinking of the effect he wandered down at 10.15 to the café.
It was the day for morning tea.