Photo by Ramez E. Nassif on Unsplash

Caul

‘Caul’ is a short story about the passage of time and how memory is what ties us to our existence. In this short story, the narrator observes and understands what was taking place in his family and the lives of his neighbours; through this understanding, he empathises with their experiences. No matter how much time passes, memory is still relevant and is part of identity — even if the physical environment has changed, the history that underpins a place is still relevant.

I’m 93 years old. I’ve seen a lot of things in my time. I was born in this house, in the bathroom. When I was born I came out with a caul. When my mother saw me she apparently fainted dead away. She thought that I was born without a face, but when they peeled the membrane back I was normal. They gave my mother smelling salts and she came to. They say that people born with a caul have a second sight; that they can see things others can’t. To be honest there’s been a lot of things I wish I hadn’t witnessed the first time, let alone seeing them beforehand or revisiting them afterwards. But I’m good at understanding things, understanding people. Maybe it’s just because I’ve had more time than most to practice.

My grandfather once owned all the houses in this street. He came back from the gold rush with enough money to buy the land and then built the houses himself. This is the biggest one, it’s also the last. My grandfather may have been a good prospector but he was a terrible businessman. One by one the houses were sold off, demolished, replaced. All except this one. When I die my grandchildren are going to sell it to a developer. They’ll tear it down and put six apartments on the block and everything that belonged to the past will be gone. They wanted to do it ten years ago. The youngest grandchild Martin offered to sell this house and set me up in a retirement home so I could be with all the other old people waiting to die. I told him that they would have to sell this place over my dead body. He said that’s probably what was going happen. The house next door was knocked down and replaced maybe fifty years ago. But that house had to go, there was something wrong with it. That’s a story in itself.

The Robertson family lived next door. They looked after us, in a way they saved us. My father died on his fortieth birthday working on the wharves. A hook snapped loose and hit him in the face, pretty much knocked his head off his shoulders. I was sitting on the porch the afternoon it happened, playing with some cardboard I’d found, making shadows on the wall of the house. The sun suddenly seemed too bright, and I found myself lying on the ground, a thin crescent of vomit trailing behind me, my head pounding. Then the light seemed normal again, but the sun had a halo, a rainbow band around it in a perfect circle. Later some men came from the stevedoring company; the owner of the business, some of my father’s workmates. My mother was in the kitchen, making a date pudding to celebrate my father’s birthday. I saw her face when the owner told her about the accident. I’ve seen that expression on other people’s faces since. It means that their world just fell apart.

Photo by Dylan Sauerwein on Unsplash

Now my mother was a good woman. I was the fourth of six children. After my father’s passing it was up to my mother to raise and provide for us. I guess it was too much for her sometimes. My mother would disappear every now and again for a few days, maybe a week. The Robertsons filled in the gaps when my mother was away. Mrs. Robertson would cook us a meal, bring it over, Mr. Robertson would keep an eye on us, make sure we were all home after dark. Eventually my mother would come back from her holidays, carrying on as if nothing had happened. I’d come home from school and she would be in the kitchen, food on the stove and a cup of tea cooling on the bench. Things would be fine for a few months until she left again.

Then one time my mother didn’t return. After eight days Mr. Robertson called the police, but she was long dead by then. The coroner was just waiting to put a name to the body in the city morgue. They found her washed up in the river. There was no evidence of foul play, just water in her lungs. She probably fell off one of the railway bridges in a drunken state, and the water swallowed her. I don’t have any memory of a premonition of that event, but once when I was swimming in the bay with friends I saw her face in the blue-green water. She looked just like she always did, peaceful and patient.  I haven’t been able to submerge my head since.

After my mother passed the Robertsons stepped in a little more. Mr. Robertson would fix things in the house when they broke, Mrs. Robertson would make sure that we got to school in what passed as a uniform. Of course all of us children went out to work early. There was no money to support someone for longer than we had to. I got as far as fifth grade before I took up a job at the abattoir. I worked at that slaughterhouse for sixty-two years. I stared out by picking up hooves and putting them in a bin for gelatin, and ended up as the day foreman in the office. I don’t like to think about how many animals died while I was on shift.

But if it weren’t for the Robertsons we would have been farmed out to the state. The older ones would have fended for themselves, but I would have been sent to an orphanage, the younger two the same. We would have been split apart and blown to all the points on the compass by the four winds.

The Robertsons had a son named James. I played with him when we were kids, but stopped doing so when I went out to work. James kept attending school, all the way to university. He always had his head in a book. He used to talk about adventuring across the world, digging up ancient ruins and finding treasure. This was only a few years after Howard Carter dug up that boy king in Egypt, it was a time when there were still things to be discovered. James may have loved stories, but his parents had other ideas. I still remember hearing what a polite neighbour would call an exchange of views from next door. It went like this:

Mr. Robertson: You have the marks to study anything you want. We will pay the fees for you to go to university, but not to waste your time.

James: I’m not going to be wasting my time studying archaeology.

Mr. Robertson: And how much money is in archaeology? How are you going to support yourself, support a family?

James: You can’t make be what I don’t want to be. I’ll fail every subject!

Mrs. Robertson: James! Don’t be ridiculous! You’re acting like a child!

Mr. Robertson: You’ll go to university and you will study medicine and you will be a doctor.

From my perspective at the time this was an argument that only rich people had. By then I was in my late teens and had been promoted to heavy duties, which meant a few more pounds in my pay-packet every week. In my case heavy duties meant I did the actual slaughtering. It was dangerous work to kill a beast in those days. The animals knew what was happening, and were wild to escape. We didn’t stun them like we do now, so I would have to dart in and cut their throats while they were in the crush so they would bleed out. I was up to my elbows in blood and shit ten hours a day, five days a week.

As for James, his parents won. He studied medicine. They relented by allowing him to take the course away from home, paid his board and tuition to go to university half way across the country. James would come home on holidays, but I hardly saw him as I’d be up early and away for the day. Sometimes when I’d turn in at night I would see the light on in his room. I imagined him reading a book, the pages illuminated by a shining lamp in his childhood room, the stiff paper pages speaking of wild adventures. I never saw James with a friend, he never had a hometown sweetheart, although he was good looking enough.

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

Two days before it happened I saw James in his front yard, sitting on a swing suspended from an oak tree that my grandfather had planted. It was high summer and he was home for the holiday break. I had finished work for the day and had walked home. It was a hot day, but the sun was getting low on the horizon, and my skin felt that pleasant warmth that can only happen at that time of year. The light was slanting across the sky, and the shadows it cast were getting longer. James was staring at the ground, his long legs oversized in the seat of the swing, his bare feet making invisible trails in the grass.

As I walked by I called out to him, tried to catch his attention. James! You’re a bit big for that swing don’t you think?

James looked up, and that’s when I saw it. Around his head there was a rainbow halo. The light arced around his face, like an oil slick left over from the rain, displaying every colour in the spectrum. I suddenly felt sick, like I would vomit.

James looked at me without recognition. I excused myself and went inside and threw up in the bathroom, washed away what was left of my lunch.

I never spoke to James again.

Two days later Mrs. Robertson went out to buy groceries while her husband was at work. When the house was empty James went down to his family garage and locked the door. His father had just bought a car, the first person in our street to do so. The day he drove it home everyone stood around it, admiring its curves and slopes, the way the light winked off the chrome, casting reflections of the sun. Mr. Robertson stood back and let us all see it, proud of what he had bought, of the life he had built.

James was a medical student so he knew what to do. He made the necessary preparations, climbed into the driver’s seat and turned the keys in the ignition to start the engine, and thereby ended things. His mother came home from the shops on the tram as she always did and thought nothing of the silence in the house, James was always quiet. It wasn’t until Mr. Robertson got home that the locked garage door was discovered.

After the ambulance had gone Mr. Robertson chained the door to the garage. The car sat inside, the shiny paint unreflective in the darkness, hidden away.

After that there was always something wrong with that house.

There’s not much you can say to make things better after the death of a child. The Robertsons had always been kind to us. The sort of people who did real things to keep our life going, to fill in the gaps so that there was food on the table and water running out of the taps. All of us went to the funeral, even the siblings who had moved away. We sent flowers and left food on their doorstep, but what comfort can you provide to parents whose child has done away with himself?

Time passed and summer waned. The Robertson house was quiet, but they kept to their schedule, working and maintaining the place. Mr. Robertson painted the eaves that autumn. The lawns stayed mowed. I would see Mrs. Robertson return to the house on the same schedule as before, catching the same tram, carrying the same basket to buy what they needed.  Once during the next winter I saw her walking down the street in a rainstorm without an umbrella, a raw wind blowing, and I rushed out to shield her from the weather with my coat. I tried to start up a conversation but she just looked up at me, her eyes clear blue on her rain-wet face. The best I could do was wish her sympathy for her troubles.

A year to the day of James’ passing Mrs. Robertson dropped by our house. It was a Saturday so I was home. It was one of those mornings where you could feel the heat building early, the air thick and oppressive, unpleasant even though the sun was still below its zenith.

She knocked at the door, as always unfailingly polite. She had brought around a pound cake, just like she had done so many times when we were children and she was trying to treat us. I invited her in for tea but she begged off, citing an errand she had to run. I watched her walk down the garden path to our front gate, open it and step through, carefully latch it closed.

Later I made some tea and cut the cake. As soon as my teeth bit into the slice a world of light erupted in my head and things went dark. My sister heard the noise and found me collapsed on the kitchen table. She tried to get me to bed, but on the way I threw up in the hall.

At about that time Mrs. Robertson was unlocking the padlock to the garage next door. She couldn’t drive a car, but had seen her husband start it enough times to know how it was done. Despite not being run for a year Mr. Robertson’s car turned over. I don’t know if the car protested or simply started without complaint, but while I was vomiting in the hallway Mrs. Robertson chose to follow her son’s lead.

Later on the car was taken away on the back of a truck. Mr. Robertson left the house to an agent and moved away from the city. He didn’t leave a forwarding address so we couldn’t contact him, and the mail we collected from their letterbox piled up on our kitchen table until we returned it to sender.

Photo by John Paulsen on Unsplash

The house eventually sold. A new family arrived, but before we could get to know them they left, to be replaced by another, and another. No one seemed to stay long at that house after the Robertsons had left. I can tell you I was relieved when the demolition crew arrived, the big black wrecking ball swinging through the house my grandfather built. I was glad to see it smashed to pieces and carted away. I wouldn’t have to look across the fence and remember the people who walked through those rooms, turned on those lights, started the car. When they built the two semi-detached houses on the block that you can see today they looked out of place in the street, like they were crowding in on top of each other. But these days they look positively palatial, bigger than what’s grown as developers have put one apartment on top of another, constructing buildings that block the sun and cast shadows on the street all year round.

That’s the end of the story of the house next door. All that’s left is the rest of my story.

This morning I had my weekly shave, although it’s more a habit than a necessity these days. I don’t have much strength left, and I think my body has decided that growing facial hair is a luxury I can do without. But a habit is a habit, so I went about my business, filled the sink with hot water, took out the blade, lathered up. When I was done and drained out the basin I looked at myself in the mirror. My skin is thin these days, you can see that, and the wrinkles that came from so much hard work and sunlight have softened. Well around my head this morning I saw a halo. Not much of one really, just a shifting of the light around my face, like sunbeams being filtered through a prism. I blinked a couple times but they were still there, I hadn’t imagined it. I don’t know if what I saw is what I think it is, but I’m not frightened. At least this time I am being spared the nausea. In the end we are all on a clock.

When I go the memories of this street and the people who lived in it will be gone. There’s history in these houses, the people who built them and the people who lived in them. I’d hate for those stories to disappear without at least one telling. The inheritance of what was before is called memory.


Martin Toman is a writer of contemporary fiction who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He studied at the Australian National University and the University of Canberra before becoming a teacher of English Literature. Martin has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Minute Magazine, Across the Margin, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fresh Ink, The Raven Review, Haunted Waters Press, The Adelaide Literary Review, and Literally Stories.

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