south – the eye of the needle. story 16
The three of them built a fish trap in the shallows at the lagoon mouth using about twenty of the large flat stones that littered the foreshore. Monty showed the boy how to construct the trap so that the outgoing tide would leave whatever fish that had entered it during the night.
‘ Just get them before the kites do young feller. ‘ he warned during one of their breaks.
Monty showed Toby how to follow bees to their hives by listening rather than looking, then how to smoke them out of the tree with a firestick of green leaves without setting rest of the forest alight.
– and together they ransacked the surrounding bush for miles to build a store of seeds and dry flower heads in order to attract some of the rarer parrots that had until then been too shy to fly down to the house. Monty hinted too, that in time Toby should be able to collect enough of their brilliant feathers to decorate a headband and that would make him a warrior boy like the ancients who lived here when the great storm lifted old Eternity from the ocean floor and cast it ashore.
The day he was to leave Monty took Toby aside and they sat awhile on the beach a little down from the house. Monty had developed a great liking for this grandson of his only friend and although he loved the solitary life he had decided that one day he would take the young fellow down the coast to see his sea caves and giant spotted gums.
‘ Only when you have learnt how to swim though mate, ok? ‘
Toby nodded his head wisely.
‘ And I’ll teach you how to ride on this, ‘ Monty gestured at his old balsa surfboard, ‘maybe I’ll ask your granddad to get me a new one in town one day eh? There’s a river mouth down there where the waves run for half a mile. ‘
‘ Can granddad come too? ‘
‘ I’d reckon. It’s about time I returned the favour. As long as he doesn’t mind sleeping in a tree. ‘
How those casual words inflamed Toby’s imagination Monty would never know.
But with it said, and after a firm handshake Monty went looking for Tom to say goodbye and a little while later Toby and his granddad watched the skinny little man paddle back across the lagoon and disappear around the entrance, one of the pups was wrapped up in a towel in his knapsack.
‘ Good man that, ‘ said the old man, ‘ I hope he gets home ok. ‘
‘ Me too. ‘
‘Come on then little fella. Bath time. Tomorrow we go to see Father Harry and he likes to talk into clean ears. ‘
The next day. 10 A.M.
Fr. Harry Carlisle, Parish Priest, at the door.
‘ And I am extremely pleased to meet you again young Tobias, and to see your grandfather of course. We have heard much about your young self and I must say that life on the beach seems to suit you both grandly. As it would all of us I have no doubt.’ His voice boomed as he spoke and he gave Toby’s granddad a large wink and showed them inside the house where Mrs. Creagh, his housekeeper, had set a tray in the study with tea and cakes. Bookshelves covered all the walls and the chairs were as big as boats.
Tom had left his large box of books by the door and Father Harry had had a quick glance at them before joining them.
The Priest’s hair was silver and a smile played around his mouth when he spoke, which was often. Occasionally he would look over at Toby and deliver him a large wink and the young fellow thought that he was a very jolly man but a little noisy. Not at all like Monty.
For the next hour the two men sat and talked of many things, none of which interested the boy as Father Harry had shown him a bookshelf crammed with National Geographic magazines and he quickly became engrossed in their illustrations. A couple of times he noticed that they had fallen silent and when he looked up he found that they were both looking at him.
Later Mrs. Creagh took him outside for a few minutes after his granddad had said he wanted a minute alone with the Priest. Then when he was returned he found that the Priest wanted a few moments alone with him.
The Priest leant forward and touched Toby lightly on the top of his head.
‘ And who cut your hair? ‘
‘ Granddad. ‘
‘ I’d ask for your money back young man, your barber is an imposter. ‘
Toby looked at him uncomprehendingly.
‘ Never mind,’ said Father Harry, ‘ now let me tell you this Sunday’s story before that shearer of sheep knocks on our door. Do you know what a camel is my lad? ‘
The long drive home went unremembered by Toby as he slept throughout. Beside him lay a large paper bag still half full of the cakes that Mrs. Creagh had pressed upon him to take home and aanother bag by his grandfather’s side held a pharmacy of stout medicines for the lad if illnesses of any description assailed him.
With the house finally reached Tom carried the sleeping boy up and into his room and past an inquisitive Alf, who had now had assumed permission to sleep under the boy’s bed every night.
Once the boy was covered up he took the small crucifix that Harry had given him and stood it upright on the dresser next to the Snug Bay woodchip. As instructed.
A few days later –
‘ Granddad! ‘
The little bloke was lying on his stomach on the floor with his nose an inch off the polished timber while he closely watched two small spiders. Occasionally he blew them away from their path to the small knothole in the wainscoting that would be their shelter.
‘ Is the eye of the needle that little hole where Mum puts the cotton when she sews?’
‘ Yes mate.’
Tom shifted himself into a more comfortable position on the lounge as he listened to the broadcast of the English tourists resuming their second innings in Melbourne. They were five for one hundred and eighty in their second innings and still a healthy three hundred runs adrift of Australia’s first bat.
A hard rain driven by southerly winds batted at the windows and he considered for a moment whether it might be time for the first fire of the season.
‘ Grand Dad!’
‘ Yes mate.’
‘ How do you get a camel through that? ’
‘ Beats me mate. ‘
Toby climbed up off the floor and walked to the lounge where his grandfather was sitting. He climbed up onto it and sat next to the old man. Right up close. Then he presented the question once more. Face to face.
‘ Come on Grand Dad, you know.’
‘ Hang on mate. ’
Gower clean bowled (Beauty). Six for two hundred.
‘ I know what sport?’
The little boy practiced his exasperated frown and took a large breath.
‘ How do you get a camel through the eye of a needle? ‘
‘ You can’t. ‘
‘ Yes you can.’
‘ Sez who? ’
‘ Father Harry, you remember! ‘
Tom looked into the boys’ clear eyes and in them saw another invitation to add to the largely unwrit parchment that was the place for his lifetime’s store of great knowledge.
‘ Oh yeah, that needle. ‘
Toby settled more comfortably into the cushion and waited for his grandfather to start, in his own way.
‘ Well, some say that the Eye of the Needle was a gateway into a city called Jerusalem. The city was surrounded by walls, and as well as the Needle there were about six or seven other ways to get in. Other gates. ’
‘ Why’d they call that one the Needle? ‘
Tom wondered at the fire of curiosity in one so young, and continued.
‘ When the guards who were patrolling the top of the wall above the Needle looked down, they could see that the line of people that stretched off down the road looked like a black thread. OK? Like your Mum used to have. Right? ‘
‘ Yep. ‘
‘ So. The other entrances were much bigger with heavy wooden and iron doors four meters high and they had to be dragged open in the mornings and locked and barred shut in the evenings. ’
‘ Why? ‘
‘ To keep people out. ‘
‘ Why? ‘
‘ Not everyone was allowed to get into the city at night. ‘
‘ Why? ‘
Tom looked down at the small brown haired head of his inquisitor.
‘ Because they were so NOSY! ‘
He went on –
‘ During the evening travellers would arrive at the city and because all the gates were closed they had to camp outside the walls and wait until morning for the main gates to be opened.
Sometimes there were large trading caravans of fifty or a hundred camels that had been travelling for months from the East, sometimes even as far as Asia. The rich traders and owners who owned these camel caravans had silks and cottons, spices, gold and gemstones, and they had their own soldiers to guard everything. Like small armies.
At other times just a few small families would arrive at the closed gates as well. Sometimes they were sick, or poor, or had relatives living in the city that they just wanted to visit. All they had was donkeys.‘
Alf rose from the floor and walked over to the lounge where the two sat. He pushed his nose into the boy’s hand, received a perfunctory scratch about the ears, then retraced his steps and dropped back onto the same spot.
Tom took this opportunity to bend his ear to the radio. Eight for two hundred and thirty. (Boycott in all morning and gone for eleven)
‘ I would of let them in. ‘
‘ Let who in? ‘
‘ The sick ones with the little donkeys, I would of let ‘em in.’
‘ They got in Ok.’
‘ But you said all the gates were shut until morning. ’
‘ They let ‘em in through the Needle. It was the smallest entrance to the city and only big enough for about one man at a time.’
‘ and his donkey? ’
‘ Yeah, I reckon the donkey could have squeezed through OK. ‘
Then as couple of rain-laden gusts of wind smacked into the side of the house he asked the questions his grandfather knew were coming.
‘ The camels would have to stay outside though. Wouldn’t they? ‘
‘ Yeah. ‘
‘ Because they were too big and they had all that stuff on them. ‘
‘ Yeah. ‘
The boy looked up at his grandfather once more. Clear sighted and direct. Eyes like jewels.
‘ Granddad. ‘
‘ Yes mate. ‘
‘ If the men who owned the camels wanted to they could just go in couldn’t they? ‘
‘ Yeah, I suppose they could do that. ‘
‘ But they would have to leave all their stuff outside wouldn’t they? ‘
‘ Yes mate. ‘
All out for two hundred and ninety nine. No ashes for the Poms this year.
‘ Do you reckon they ever did that? ‘
‘ Did what? ‘
‘ Left everything and went in. ‘
‘ Yeah. I reckon some might of. ‘
Then the boy sat silent and in deep young thought for a moment, unaware of his grandfather’s gaze.
If only they were here to see him today.
‘ Granddad! ‘
‘ Yes mate. ‘
‘ I like Father Harry but he’s in charge a lot isn’t he? ‘
‘ Suits me little feller. ‘