Long before the mummified rats
or the live rat that leapt at our heads
from shelves where, like a scene from ‘The Twilight Zone’,
a hundred or more dolls stared balefully down
through dusty lace curtaining at the bed
that she had lately slept in, we knew.
Even as we surveyed the first veranda room,
with its scant toeholds of floor, only centimetres in
from the blameless street front and geometric garden beds,
we could see that this was not simple disorder.
Not just the legacy of her incontinent tomcat,
but a miasmic, low-lying layer of something else
whose source we traced to a sunroom where
yellowed sheet music drifted up the v-j walls
towards portraits in oval frames and we stumbled upon
a gorged carpet python under a German piano.
The deeper we penetrated the territory, the less
we could fathom the rhyme and unreason of it all.
Pearlescent garden cockroaches skittered fanwise
under our hands from everything we touched:
spider-spotted cartons of instant noodles,
rolls of redundant garbage bags,
random parts of disassembled whipper snippers,
even a pair of push bikes, sprinkled with rust
like gingery mildew. All of it colluded in an avalanche
with plastic supermarket bags stiff with papers.
Sticky labels, begging letters, bills and pharmacy receipts
broke free, shifted, whirled up to settle on the threshold
and slither stealthily into the garden beds beyond.
Cages came to light, to trap possums and house cockatiels,
and others, more elaborate, with mezzanines and miniature hammocks,
all yarnbombed with dust-caked cobwebs. We burrowed onwards.
In the wash house everything carried its own burden of clotted birdlime.
Each time we bent our backs, feral pigeons made flapping sorties
through the broken louvres, the cockbirds’ throaty cooing
sounding like indistinct insults or furtive sex in the sleep-out,
while at the closed door of the toilet, now swept of her empty nest,
a hen bird fretted, silent, a twig in her beak.
We bundled inexplicable numbers of child-sized plush
rabbits and bears and gorillas into the back seat of the car,
stockpiled all the still-boxed cordless vacuum cleaners,
found the odd fetching apron among endless opshopfuls of
unworn clothing and struck ironic poses in our selections
from a stack of straw garden hats, our eyes a little too bright
below each raddled, flower-laden brim.
We saw ourselves then. Wordless, we shut the boot,
jammed the wheelie bins closed and peeled off our rubber gloves.
We lowered the blinds and with a last long sigh of fly spray,
fiddled her arrangement of chains and padlocks
and tiny keys into something like security.
Driving home we stopped at a late-closing lunch bar
to push food into our mouths. Our fingers carried
the scent of hygienic handwash with base notes
we didn’t want to name. Our eyes held the long-distance gaze
of people trying not to focus on what was under our noses.
Baffled surmise was all we had left…all those umbrellas…
coin purses…scented soaps…crucifixes…
At the finish, we were not collected enough
to ask the real question, though having dug right down,
we might have read some hint in the rat-dirt braille
strewn across the orange sitting room rug.
Not what she thought she might find, or feared she might face
when she struggled to creak open the reluctant front door.
Not what she saw each time the first crack of daylight
slashed across her tumbled treasures, but where was
the key, and where the small skewed window,
into that innermost room that would never be filled.