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EXCERPTS | PAUL HORSFALL

Faint in Soft Fire

“The nurse ran to the balcony to stop her but she was too late, of course. You sailed out, and the shawl around you billowed up like a spanker come free of its ropes. Then you sank like a stone.”

Afterwards, when they asked June Eisenhuth why she had thrown her first-born child out of a third storey window my mother answered variously that she could no longer stand the sight of me. I was an aberration, she insisted. I was not her child. She wanted nothing to do with me. I was a piece of garbage. So she had tossed me out.

But that is not the whole answer.

At the Children’s Court hearing the official assigned to the case told the magistrate another story. He had had several conversations with Miss June Eisenhuth, he told the court, in the course of which he had come to get a glimpse of her state of mind at the time of the incident. At the end of one of their sessions she had finally revealed to him the real reason she acted the way she had. And with that, the officer proclaimed that Miss Eisenhuth threw her new-born son out of the window because in his expression she believed she had seen the imprint of the wrath of God.

“She told me there were flames leaping from his eyes, your honour. Tongues of fire, she said. And thunderbolts. She spoke a lot about thunderbolts.”

“From his eyes, you say?”

“Yes, your worship. And there was something about the boy being stamped by the left foot of God.”

“Are you saying she is mentally incompetent, young man?” asked the magistrate, who disliked circuitous legal argument.

“Well, she did throw her baby out of a window, your worship,” the official answered.

“Quite.”

And with that my mother was pronounced mentally incompetent at the time of her crime, although her physical competence was never called into question. She was ordered to undergo a full psychiatric examination to determine whether or not she represented a continued danger to me. And since she was an unwed woman whose parents were both dead, and since she would not reveal the identity of the father of her child, I was temporarily removed from her under the provisions of the Child Welfare Act, 1939, and was taken into the care of the Minister. That is to say, I was proclaimed a ward of the State.

Due to the severe nature of my injuries, however, I was not immediately taken to the Child Welfare Department’s facility at Arncliffe. Instead, the magistrate ruled that I remain at the hospital until such time as I was fit to travel. The question of a foster home would be assessed later, once I was firmly in the custody of the Department.

My aunt Hester sat through the court hearing in chilled silence. She didn’t know anything about tongues of fire or thunderbolts but she knew all about the Left Foot of God, alright.

Falling…falling…falling.

One of the rockets has now begun its multiple breaks. The strobes of light hang in the air, seeming almost to hover there, twinkling like the eyes of a lover. The child has come free of his swaddling and all moorings as well. He is falling from the third storey and the hospital building is rushing past him like some runaway tram. He puts his hand out towards it unconsciously. A laugh, as unexpected as a firecracker, bursts from his lips. He is falling. Falling. Falling.

I was born in November, the black month, the month of slaughtering, Blotmonath—the month of blood. I was often tempted as a child to blame my misfortunes on this particular accident of my birth: its timing, hence its astrology. Nowadays all my stars are made by hand and their conjunctions are the result of being projected into the heavens by black powder. Like my mother before me, it is my way of thumbing my nose at the Gods. With each whistle-shell rocket I ask the Gods please to remember the fifth of November, the birthday of your humble narrator, Brandon Eisenhuth. With a lighted candle, with a lighted match, boom boom, I have been knocking on Their doors for years.

The mention of blood, like the oohing and ahhing of my growing audience, brings me back to what is taking place overhead, the set piece lovingly crafted to portray the young June Eisenhuth as she was in the last days of her childhood.

And since there is time, for the boy has not yet splashed his bones at the feet of the nymphs and is still falling falling falling, I have prepared a special firework for our recreation and re-creation, a pyrotechnical retelling of the day my mother first saw the Left Foot of God, long before the birth of her son, in the days when all the countries of the world were at war.

I call this firework: The God from the Machine.


GOD FROM THE MACHINE

My mother, June Eisenhuth, child of Thomas and Ruby, was born at the opposite end of the year to her son, in the swelling month, or to put it plainly, on Empire Day, 24 May, 1932. She was the eldest daughter in a house full of children, three boys and three girls. Her father, Tom Eisenhuth, was a thin, sickly man who worked as a cleaner and odd-job man at the local school and who belied his infirmity by the strength of his convictions for the rights of the working class. As well as having to raise a family of six children, Ruby Eisenhuth worked making up bobbins in the winding section at Vicars Woollen Mills, not far from their home in Marrickville, a suburb of Sydney. It was hard work, cleaning the threads and securing the knots, especially since the fans blew fibre waste around the workroom in a year-round snowstorm, fouling the machinery and choking the throats of all who worked there.

“I can’t seem to get rid of this bloody stuff,” Ruby Eisenhuth said one morning, peering resentfully into the handkerchief spread across her fingertips. The material was covered in furry grey lumps. “Every time I blow me blanky nose another bullseye pops out.”

“Arr, Mum!” June cried out and pushed her breakfast away. “Yuk. Stop it, you’re making me sick.” The other four children at the table pulled faces at their mother’s grimy snot. Only Joseph, the eldest, was not present. He was apprenticed to an electrician and had gone to work earlier.

“It’s bad enough the bloody stuff has to get into my hair every day. Two scarves I wear and it still gets in. I can’t get a brush through my hair some days. But these pennies from heaven really take the cake. Look at this. I’ve blown my nose a dozen times this morning. You’d think I would’ve got rid of all the mucky stuff by now. And yet this last one is bigger than the whole lot of ’em.”

“Mum!” June gagged again. She wasn’t feeling at all well. Her stomach was upset and there were flutterings low in her belly. She couldn’t face her breakfast. The yolk of her egg seeped out slowly, glistening on the plate.

“I don’t know why you women don’t do something about it,” Tom Eisenhuth said, forking another piece of toast into his mouth and sneaking a look at the Sydney Morning Herald open on the sideboard, despite his own rules about reading at the table. “It’s a union shop, after all. You should have a word with the rep.”

“Nah, he’s useless,” Ruby answered, even as she slapped her middle son, Harry, on the back of his head for poking his fork into his younger sister. “That bloody union. They don’t give two hoots for the women down there. They still haven’t got us a decent flooring yet. Bare bloody concrete! You try working all night on a cold concrete floor. It’s a bloody disgrace.”

June Eisenhuth winced. She was embarrassed by the way her mother spoke. All that swearing. She was afraid to bring any of her friends to the house for fear they would see how common she was. June secretly wished that her mother could be more like the fine women she saw in the movies or heard on the radio. If only she could be like Auntie Maud, or Auntie Goodie, or Auntie Margaret or Auntie Ivy or Auntie Mary…Hoo oo oo! More than anyone else in the world she wanted her mother to be like Greer Garson in all those wonderful films. Why couldn’t she be like Mrs Miniver or Madame Curie or Mrs Parkington or Mrs Chips? Then June would be proud to invite all the visitors she liked.

COOLTURE | When Actors Go Mental

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