GOOD VISA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The ar­chae­ol­o­gist said. ‘‘ They won­der why You are re­ally here.’’ And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. As a young boy I wrote in my black book: I won­der why I am re­ally here? For in that year I was sud­denly un­able To be­lieve in God. And some­thing needed to be done. Some­thing that now, in mid­dle-age, I have yet to do. How to put a name to it? And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. In the be­gin­ning . . . In the end . . . The new coun­try to which my Good visa had gained me ad­mit­tance Was a desert. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. Ahead of me, bar­ring the road, Which was dusty and un­made, Was a crude bar­rier, as if it marked Another makeshift fron­tier, An un­of­fi­cial out­post. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. I reached into the left-hand pocket Of my tweed jacket, woven by J. J. ex­clu­sively For Kevin & Howlin of Nas­sau Street, Dublin, In the free Repub­lic of Ire­land, The an­ces­tral home of my mother, The for­lorn vil­lage of Bal­lyragget, In the county of Kilkenny, Where my old peo­ple lie By the ru­ined stone church Among the black yew trees. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. And my fin­gers found My good visa safely there. A visa with which I might sur­mount All bar­ri­ers, with which I might Go any road I chose. So why was I afraid now? The sol­diers watched me ap­proach. They sat and leaned and smoked, A slovenly bunch, they seemed to me. Not like the oth­ers. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. There was noth­ing to stop me From go­ing around their bar­rier, The desert ly­ing empty on ei­ther side. But in my pride I wished to let them know Who I was; To see them straighten up For a man with a good visa. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. They ob­served me com­ing on along the road, Their mock­ing laugh­ter on the desert air now; Those blood scav­engers we have seen At the re­mains of slaugh­tered beasts. But I could no longer re­trace my steps; Re­turn to the town, and to lost op­por­tu­ni­ties

there. As I drew close to the sol­diers Fear was in me.

And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words

Must be enough. They leaned against Piles of truck tyres and forty-four gal­lon

drums, Their at­ten­tions sin­is­ter, Smok­ing Cig­a­rettes and spit­ting on the ground. Un­shaved, their sweat-stained tu­nics open, Guns loosely held across their bel­lies. I saw in them men who had been given

point­less work, Men de­mor­al­ized by in­ac­tion, Dis­heart­ened, bored and cruel In the face of their mean­ing­less lives. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. An older one among them stepped to­wards me. ‘‘ Visa!’’ he said, thrust­ing out his hand. And did not meet my eyes. I laid my good visa in his naked palm. He took it with­out a word, With­out a sign, with­out look­ing at it, Fail­ing to note its spe­cial fea­tures! Then turned and went in­side the guard­post, Built like an Aus­tralian coun­try dunny, It was, make-do of tin and wood, Rat­tling in the desert wind. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. I stood in the road and waited, The heat like a glove over my mouth, My heart strug­gling, The sol­diers watch­ing me. The desert sun on my back through J. J’s Black weave. Their gaze was piti­less, They were ex­pec­tant of an en­ter­tain­ment, Con­tempt for the soli­tary trav­eller. In­so­lence and de­ri­sion in their eyes. The thought came to me; It Is im­por­tant to be philo­soph­i­cal about One’s death. But fear trumped phi­los­o­phy. For fear holds the ace of hearts. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. The older guard at last came out And with a nasty smirk said; ‘‘ Here’s your visa.’’ And he smiled at His com­rades, who laughed And spat and jigged about Like chil­dren at a Christ­mas party When Santa’s ar­rival is an­nounced. I looked at the thing in my hand: It was a filthy scrap of linen, Torn from a woman’s dress, Or from a man’s shirt. The sweet­ish smell of rot­ting flesh Ris­ing to my mouth. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. And I re­called the first time I had en­coun­tered the smell of death: I was a boy of eight or nine and walk­ing with My fa­ther in the Ken­tish woods, Elms and oaks and a scuff of leaves Un­der our boots. Then came the smell That made me cover my mouth. My wounded fa­ther held my hand; ‘‘ Some­thing is dead nearby,’’ he said to me. ‘‘ This smell was with us Ev­ery day over there to­wards the end.’’ And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. Smeared in blood across the shred of cloth In my hand, the let­ters V.I.S.A. The sol­diers rocked and slapped at each other To wit­ness my dis­may. And fear gripped my beat­ing heart Like the hand of a gi­ant. I was a crip­pled bird At their mercy, and was never Again to rise from this ground, And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. I looked up into the eyes Of the old sol­dier; ‘‘ This is not the visa I gave you,’’ I said. But my voice was small, Dry in the hot desert wind. ‘‘ If you don’t give me back my Good visa, I shall re­port you And you will be in big trou­ble.’’ Words sim­ple enough for The very sim­plest of men. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. The old sol­dier ad­dressed his com­pan­ions, ‘‘ He doesn’t want his visa,’’ he said. Sens­ing the trap, I clutched the bloody rag And mut­tered my thanks. They did not lift the bar­rier for me But watched me duck Un­der it, their laugh­ter fol­low­ing me As I went on; ex­pect­ing a kick Or a bul­let from be­hind. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. I was an old man, Alone in the desert of time, My good visa a delu­sion, My past ac­com­plish­ments But scraps blown about. And when I turned and looked back The sol­diers and their false Bor­der were gone. And I al­ways thought: the very sim­plest words Must be enough. Once I had thought it pos­si­ble For one world to end And another to be­gin. But it was only a dream. The road I had come by Was the road I was go­ing.

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