Passing bells

Selwyn Atchison rumpled over the old coach bridge to come see my Uncle Ferny, who was always first in line when local groups wanted money. The Atchison dray announced itself as the bridge planks paradiddled in the sunlight. The woody music of timber buckling and returning to its set. Wood wheels on wood, under overhanging ironbark cousins: I heard the ripple from where I was picking foxgloves in the garden.

Atchison believed a church bell would be like the belt of his trousers. It would save him, save us all, from embarrassment. I have heard that many men in these parts see no need for conventional accoutrements such as underpants, but a bell was of a different order. It would keep us from being spiritually, civically, communally naked. Rung out and resonant rather than strung out and desperate. Selwyn Atchison, Presbyterian burgher, barley farmer and barely above the ruminant, would not settle for less. His happy collie came straight for me and my pocket of lozenges as Selwyn settled his dray and formally tap-tapped a bony knuckle on our rufous she-oak door.

Uncle Ferny himself was hairy from reading. Absorbed he’d been, for three unshaven days and nights straight, in Furphy’s Such Is Life, his favourite book. He had carried its voices through Egypt and Russia, read it aloud in Rome, Alexandria, Trieste, championed its inventions and pleasures all around the world, and now he was himself hearing it all again once more, as if for the first time, as he always did upon his return. But for Selwyn Atchison reading was all about practicality. Music was too. The bell, as I said, would keep his trousers up. And so came Ferny’s woody tread to Selwyn’s ingratiating tap. And Ferny’s smile, as always, was wide, as much, in this case, because a visitor would allow him a chance to convey the prodigiously detailed delights of his talisman book, as with seeing another member of a species of which he was so fond.

From the garden I heard them treading the boards back towards Uncle Ferny’s study, deep in the bowels of the house. But not so deep that it didn’t have a window, a hand-blown ripply square of glass that looked through cross panes as if through gun sights onto where myself and the collie were laughing in the garden.

So it was I saw them settle down to begin to discuss the bell. Or at least that’s what poor Mr Atchison thought they were going to discuss. But could he get a word in edgeways? It seemed to me not, with Ferny clapping his hands in rapture, slapping his twilled thighs for emphasis, his reader’s beard growing visibly upon the espalier of a structured enthusiasm. Atchison looked as pinned to the wall as the butterflies I used to see in the Melbourne museum as a girl.

What interest had Atchison, after all, in literary invention, let alone bullockies, which were the unlikely protagonists of Mr Furphy’s book. But still the jugulating torrent of Ferny’s words came, extolling the experiments of the novel, the life it had captured, the way the search for good grass at a day’s end can inspire as well as shelter, and everything else that he had been reporting to me when, from time to time over the past three days and nights, he had emerged from his study to pee, or to eat, or to simply catch his breath between chuckling exultations.

At some point however it must have dawned on Selwyn Atchison that he needed to contrive a convergence. A convergence between the intensity of Ferny’s admiration for Furphy’s noisy art and his own Presbyterian need for a bell to civilise, indeed to drown out, the pollinating salt airs of this small inlet into, and out of, the sea. Perhaps my Uncle Fernshaw had actually mentioned the necessity of taking joy in chthonic culture, perhaps indeed, when I had seen him lean to his desk to take up the green boards of the Furphy volume, it had been to quote the following:

“Mrs Beaudesart possessed a vast store of Debrett-information touching those early gentlemen-colonists whose enterprise is hymned by loftier harps than mine, but whose sordid greed and unspeakable arrogance has yet to be said or sung.”

As they say in the gowned halls of learning, “the italics are mine”. As were the gasps when Atchison’s voice whined out: “But that’s it, don’t you see, Fernshaw!”, presaging a long interception of my uncle’s monologue, as Mr Atchison strove to stake out their common ground.

Whether Ferny was having any of it he did not explicitly say, either that day or the next. Though Atchison was a grim type, a night-teethgrinder who I imagine ground his wife down likewise with a compensatory and therefore near-permanent erection, Ferny was so good natured, and also, I might add, so allergic to conflict, that he may have had no trouble subscribing to the campaign for the bell.

Soon, however, I saw my uncle scrawling notes at his desk as Atchison spoke, and soon after that, turning again and waving Furphy in the air. Then, from what I could see reflected in the glad eyes of the collie, they were taking whiskey. Although it was barely 11am in the morning, Ferny’s bon vivance and Selwyn Atchison’s spirit-addiction saw the knob of the decanter jostled out. The collie knew, as all collies know, the shadows of her master. Atchison was a belligerent husband and a pent-up soak, whereas Ferny was simply high as the Devil’s Elbow on learning and friendship. Atchison was someone to talk Furphy’s freakish achievement to, by god. And if that were to include the transient byway of the inlet bell, then so be it.

I, however, would like to linger on the passing bell, the way a wave exhales as if with universal relief when it hits the shore. These are the sighs, the passing bells, we listen to every evening, untroubled as they are by the fixative intent of humankind. My ears rejoice in a music nobody made, just as Selwyn Atchison himself regrets the same, and repeatedly stabs his wife as a consequence. He will not give up with his earnest campaign, yet the consolation I take is that unlike him the waves can never cease. He will be drowned, as will we all. For the passing bells that an ocean tolls don’t ever pass at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 16, 2021 as "Passing bells".

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