James and the four eggs

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My country cousin lives in a straw-bale house. She and her husband built it themselves at the foot of rolling hills outside a regional centre of Victoria. They wait for me on the station platform, still in their gardening and sheep-wrangling clothes, which as my cousin says are their pretty much all-the-time clothes.

Four eggs in a nestShe waves with a cheerful eagerness that recalls the ironic self-description of our family of origin. Someone has declared we have 'hearts-too-soon-made-glad' and we know it's true. She and I often speak in pigeon-Jane-Austen. As we heave my bags into the boot of the sedan, we rejoice in our easy proximity to their home-made house, an edifice 'by no means lacking in windows'.

The long dirt driveway up to the house delivers us at balcony level where we can look across the native garden, out to the acres of re-forested farmland and beyond, to mountain ranges in the distance.

The next morning I sit on the balcony in the early morning sunshine. The garden near to the house is filled with large, flowering, bird-attracting shrubs. A single long-limbed, creamy-barked eucalypt also stands close. Numerous swallows, babblers and parrots dart between the deck, the tree and the tall shrubs in the garden below. The red-rumped parrots and a pair of yellow rosellas inhabit three wooden nesting boxes attached to the vertical steel poles on the deck. The boxes are fashioned from hollow branches with natural holes which the parrots squeeze into — with a deft shrug of the shoulders — to tend their eggs.

From the tops of tall trees in the middle distance, sulphur crested cockatoos take long swooping glides with their solid-looking wings — feathers with heft. The brilliant white of the cockies slices the blue sweep of the sky. As they come closer, landing momentarily in the eucalypt, they flick and duck their crests, crowns of lurid lemony yellow — they are not called cocky for nothing. Higher still, ravens and birds of prey make their slow easeful surveys of the ground far below.

In the early afternoon my cousin and I are drinking tea, when a motor bike appears. 'Oh, that will be James,' she says, 'He likes to call by.' She tells me her husband first met him when, as a young adult, James arrived at the maths coaching business in the centre of town. We can hear James saying my cousin's name and her husband directs him up to the deck.

James appears, tall and rangy, in a surfing t-shirt and jeans that have to be belted at the waist, he is so thin. He holds out macadamia nuts that he has brought from his tree. He repeats the words, 'nuts' and 'hammer' and my cousin completes the sentence, 'So I'll need a hammer to break them, right?' James nods profusely and mimes a demonstration. James' gestures are definite, he is used to communicating with his body when there are not enough words available to him.

 

"Never before has the joy and privilege of knowing how to count been so real to me."

 

He meets my eye when we are introduced. His eyes are blue and widely spaced under a mop of brown hair, cut in a thick bob. Amidst all the nodding and the nut-smashing there is something straight up about him.

James holds out a macadamia nut to me, a perfect round ball in its inner shell. 'Hammer,' he says again, and then something about popcorn that my cousin tries taking up over several rounds of interpretation. James will say the beginning of a word and then — if he can land the rest of it — the whole thing. You can almost see the words filing past as he dives on them with attempt after attempt to pull them back by their tails. It is easy to want to join him in the endeavour of shared meaning, but the popcorn connection is unsuccessful. There is an air of relief and rapid agreement when tea is offered.

While James was making his way up to join us on the balcony, my cousin told me that he'd come to the maths coaching because he'd been in trouble at work. He had to stack crates to a certain level at the workshop but was unable to count them, making the unloading impossible for people without his height and strength. He needed to learn to count. As she says this simple sentence my heart goes into a momentary pause, a little waiting pulse that takes in this new information. Then she stops, and I hear the unspoken respect in the spareness of the telling.

James sits down as invited, but soon stands up again when the birds come diving about the eucalypt. He narrows his eyes and names the birds. His words come with an eagerness and clarity that astonishes me. When he finishes the list with the red-rumped parrot, he says the whole name effortlessly. My eyes widen. Then he points to the distance and says, 'Eagle, eagle.' My cousin compares notes with him on eagles recently sighted.

From one of the nesting boxes there is a sudden flapping as the yellow rosella squeezes from the hole and flies away. My cousin says, 'Oh, that one doesn't like it when we move around up here ... but while she's gone, have a look, there are eggs in there.'

James moves to the box and spends a moment figuring out how to do the sideways twist that opens the lid. Then he carefully puts his hands behind his back and leans forward over the hollowed out container, giving it his close attention. My skin breaks into goosebumps as James squints into the dark interior and begins counting.

'One. One, two. One, two, three. One, two, three, four. Four.' He turns and looks toward us with utter glee. 'Four, eggs! Four, eggs!'

Never before has the joy and privilege of knowing how to count been so real to me. For the rest of the afternoon I keep noticing how numbers and dates and counting are a part of the conversation, his conversation, our conversation.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

Topic tags: Julie Perrin

 

 

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Existing comments

In my schooldays, maths was not my favourite subject. I had/have no facility for it. In my family, though, there are a few very able mathematicians. So, I'm grateful that when my bank accounts show a deficit someone gets me out of trouble. I also thought of "James and the Giant Peach" when reading this!
Pam | 06 December 2018


Julie. When I read an account of the world we live in like the one you have described here, I come to believe that the Creator's Heaven, prepared for us, exists on this planet not in some faraway place in the uncharted hereafter. I suppose in saying that I've just earned another big red X in the "DO NOT ADMIT" column of St Peter's Requirements for Entry Journal. We human beings seem bent on bringing Hell into reality here on this planet with no small level of success - so why do we ignore Heaven when we can see it all around us, proclaiming the greatness of the Creator? I reckon such imagery as you define should be compulsory reading for children in our schools, likely to achieve much more than RE, NAPLAN and SAFE SCHOOLS programs - provided the teachers understood it, of course!
john frawley | 06 December 2018


Lovely writing Julie, i too was sitting on the deck as I read, and I did enjoy the pigeon- Jane Austen Heathet
Heather McKean | 06 December 2018


Love the way you draw us to embrace the differences and appreciate him as he is.
WG | 06 December 2018


This is lovely, Julie. Sometimes we take our ease with words for granted. The common language we share is how we respond to each other with generosity and compassion. My counting is pretty basic but I can count what matters and you have described this beautifully. I am on the deck with you drinking a cup of tea and indulging happily in pigeon Jane Austen.
Rennie | 07 December 2018


Loved this! Beautiful descriptions of garden, landscape and birdlife. I wanted to sit on the balcony with you. And then to have this fine young man enter the scene. His purity of spirit seeming so in harmony with the natural world. Thank you Julie.
Margie Bradbeer | 07 December 2018


Julie, yet another delightful scene witnessed with such beauty and compassion! You have such an incredible way of bringing attention to the nurturing gifts of the heart and soul, the things that are too easily missed in our busy world. I love it! (And I love your cousin and James too!!) Thank you.
Fi Bottcher | 07 December 2018


Illuminating and wise.
Janet | 10 December 2018


A relief to hear simple moving stories that touch the heart & affirm humanity. Thanks, Julie is masterful
Trish | 11 December 2018


Your ability to convey deeply moving stories continues to grow. It's a privilege to be a recipient.
Dawn | 11 December 2018


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