Kenneth Williams ..: “I got a viper in this box………….It’s not an asp..oh no…some people think it’s an asp..but it’s not…oh no..it’s a viper…”
Eric hauled his vintage 350cc BSA motorcycle back onto the centre-stand and placed his gloves and jacket over the seat..his helmet he placed over the rear-view mirror…he ran a comb through his hair, straightened his clothes, dusted his trousers down and, extracting his handkerchief, gave a quick polish to his shoes…He then walked through the gate to the front door of the farmhouse..and by the by, if one was to look to the way Eric walked, a noticeable limp can be detected and further examination would reveal his right foot make a small, almost undetectable flick with each step that showed the result of an accident in his youth concerning the as yet incomplete training of the bay mare that pulled the sulky, shying at just the moment the young Eric hopped down off the sulky and the offending foot was run over by the wheel and fractured somewhat..in the bad setting of the ankle bone, the resulting limp was created that stifled Eric’s opportunities in both sporting prowess and appeal to the young ladies of the district.. so it was with a trepidatious hand that Eric knocked on Bennie Kroenig’s door.
“Oh..hello, Eric”…Bennie greeted the familiar person of Eric Lischke jovially “…What brings you to my door this time of day?”
Now there are two things here that need explanation..: 1) How does Bennie know Eric so well?..2) What DOES bring Eric to Bennie’s door at that time of day?
Kenneth Williams..: “Oh yes…it’s not an asp..Cleopatra had an asp..but I don’t ..I have a viper..I mean, some people think an asp is easier to run…but it’s not..oh no..my viper is not easy to run…it eats like a horse!…”
In the first case, Bennie is quite familiar with Eric because Eric’s parents run the local general store and he has frequent dealings with Eric in that store…as does all the Kroenig Family…which consists, by the way, of just three people..; Bennie, his wife, Elma and their one child..a daughter; Alice.
It was Alice who most interested Eric and by way of coincidence, the reason for this surprise visit to Bennie’s front door, for at that particular time of day, any who knew would think that Eric would be at the counter of the store checking out customer’s purchases or in the back storehouse sorting stock to place upon the shelves..yet, here he was at the front door of the Kroenig’s farmhouse to talk to Bennie, Alice’s father about a subject close to Eric’s heart.
‘…But where are my manners, Eric…come in, come in and I’ll put the kettle on…I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with my making the tea as Elma has gone to town to do her quilting classes…”
Elma is Bennie’s wife…they have been married many years and first became engaged when Bennie came back home after the war…The primary reason for their marriage was not only that they had known and were fond of each other for many years prior, and that they both went to the same school together, and the fact that their families lived in close proximity within a cluster of only three families in the area..but the engagement and marriage predicated on the reality of Bennie giving Elma “one up the trouser-leg” at the celebratory party on the event of Bennie’s return from the war and in consequence, getting Elma pregnant…a situation agreeable in any rate to all parties concerned, and the fact that the resulting child ; “Alice” was born in under the normal allotted time for confinement was of no cause for comment as it is well understood and accepted in these Mallee communities that the first child, being new to the situation, could come at any time, but any subsequent children generally serve out the full nine months confinement.
But there were no other children for Bennie and Elma for no reason both the parents and the local doctor could ascertain save that divine intervention had restricted the Kroenigs to the one child and that was their lot…The Kroenigs, on their part fully accepted the will of their God and got on with their life regardless…and truth be known is that Elma, witnessing the lot of other multiple birth mothers in the district was silently relieved by the fateful consequence and each Sunday at the Lutheran mass, would give secret prayer of thanks for her situation and applied her spare time to the local sewing club she had been attending since the days in her teen years when she would ride her pushbike the ten miles into town along a dirt road to learn sewing lessons from Mrs Auricht at the institute where the club still met every Wednesday afternoon.
Kenneth Williams..: “…The man in the carriage said; ‘like a horse, eh?’…”yes..I like a horse..I could do with a horse….but I couldn’t get a horse into a little box like thiissss!…oh no…it’s NOT a HORSE BOX!..oh no..a viper..yesss…but a horse..NO!..”
The two men sat at the kitchen table facing each other in curious silence for a moment when Eric, to break the ice and create a more comfortable environment . . .
“ How’s the farm going, Ben?…has it been a good year for the wool?”
“Well…you know the corporation collapsed and with that buying certainty gone, we’re on our own now..at the mercy, so to speak, of the buyers in the marketplace…and I can tell you, young Eric..I’m no good at bartering and bargaining…no good at all…”
“That’s no good.” Eric sympathised.
“nah…it’s no good alright…the farm isn’t paying at all right now…like so many others around the district..and I don’t quite know where it’ll go from here..” and Bennie sipped from his cup..”But it doesn’t look good.”
“Well I suppose it must be a help having Alice back home to help with the tasks?”
“Pity the circumstances that brought her back though…losing a husband like she did brings no happiness to the house and home.”
“He died of heart attack, I believe?” Eric posed.
“Heart attack be jiggered….more like a kidney attack if the truth be known…was never troubled by a stuck cork, that man…and if what I hear besides is correct, there were other “substances” he was more than familiar with..” and Bennie nodded his head and tapped the side of his nose..”I just hope he didn’t drag our Alice into his shady little world..” and Bennie lifted his cup to his lips and sipped his tea.
Indeed, there were rumours doing the rounds since Alice had returned after the death of her husband under suspicious circumstances…the drug ‘heroin’ was bandied around somewhat, but that word being one of the most vague and exotic words for a district and world such as the Kroenigs were living in, it had little dramatic effect on them..the fact that he was a drunkard was the more impressionable and easier understood fault of the passing of Alice’s husband.
Eric, of course, was familiar with the rumours floating around the town, being on the front-line of the gossip pool as counter-jumper at the local store, he heard first hand every sanctimonious, schadenfreudian and salacious accusation levelled at all and sundry in the citizen body of that little country town..and in the case of Alice, whom he had worn a heart on his sleeve for many a year, this was another reason that brought him to front the door of the Kroenig’s farmhouse.
Eric was getting older and still unmarried and alone after all these years…his gammy leg, added to the impression given of his simple minded attitude to life in general made him a small target for any woman looking for future prospects in a son of the owners of the local general store…even IF he DID have the beneficial inheritance prospects for the future…the prospect of fronting his person for the rest of one’s life in a situation of marriage was just too much for any prospective young woman in the district to contemplate..indeed, Eric did try his luck on Alice many years ago when he was a tad more confident of both his personality and person, only to be looked up and down like a totem-pole and then firmly, if not…quite…scornfully rejected by Alice…it was the one and only time Eric had propositioned any women thereon in up until he heard of Alice returning to the family home after the death six months gone of her husband…it was in such a circumstance that Eric considered his chances more favourable to ask for the hand of Alice this second time..even if to herself it could be seen as a “marriage of convenience”..and it was in coming to the family farm that he sought to seek a more favourable response..
Kenneth Williams..: “ I also would like to have a fish..but I haven’t got a fish in this box..I couldn’t get a fish in this box..a fish would need water…and cardboard is not waterproof..oh no..they haven’t waterproofed cardboard yet!….or if they have they haven’t told me…….”
On this front, Eric thought he was on solid ground…the prospects for Alice to regain a respectable living standard rested on her still reasonable age and looks to remarry and establish herself in the district as wife and mother with one of the more established families as indeed was Eric’s…and since Eric was aware of the lately closing and settling of several old family accounts at the family store, demonstrated the passing from the district of much of the “old stock”, leaving evidence of a state of ennui prevailing among the farming community, pointing a spiralling toward the beginning of the end of a once thriving agricultural district…added to this the arrival of those considered flotsam and jetsam from the outer suburbs of the capital of the state…desperates seeking cheap accommodation and cheaper living standards that kept himself and his brothers on their toes for shoplifters and the like…the fact even that the shop had its front doors forced on more than one occasion demanding a fortified security system unheard of in the history of the store and town..gave Eric confidence his proposal to Alice for marriage would meet with a more favourable reception than the last..
“I have been considering selling up, to be candid..” Bennie continued “What with the failing crops and the market gone out of it, coupled with Elma and my age and the threatening health of us both, there’s not much to keep us here…young William Schmidt has demonstrated interest in the place since he purchased the east paddocks off his old Aunt there, the addition of this farm would give him a continuity of acreage right through from the Stiller’s spread to the pipeline..a very useable spread of country…and he being a young fellah, he could develop it.”
“What would Alice do?” Eric asked.
“Alice!?…..well, I suspect she could pick herself up another fellah and make a new life of her own.” And Bennie squinted one eye whilst looking toward Eric meaningfully…”..is this the purpose of your visit, Eric…to ask about Alice?”
Eric shifted his person in the kitchen chair so it creaked in the quiet afternoon air….in the silence of that moment, he became aware of the television being on in the lounge area in the next room and he presumed, accurately, that this was the occupation of Bennie when he intruded with his knock on the door..Eric turned his head to indicate the sound coming from the lounge..
“Ah…yes..I was watching the afternoon show on the tele’ ..” Bennie confessed..”there’s a very funny episode with that fellah that starred in those “Carry on” films”…and snapped his fingers several times in recalling the name…”what is it ..what is it…” suddenly his eyes lit..and he leaned into the table toward Eric…” Kenneth Williams…that’s it…yes…that poofy looking chap…Kenneth Williams..he’s doing a show by himself on stage…weird sort…funny but…love those Carry On films..as does Elma..we both have a sidesplitting laugh whenever they come on..” and he chuckled a little at the thought..
Eric let it slide..
“Yes…I suppose that’s the nub of my visit, Ben..I did come to ask if I could take Alice’s hand…”
Bennie tapped his fingers on the table top and gave the idea some thought..he then raised his face to look to Eric..and Eric could not help but see a sadness wash over Bennie’s features as he cogitated on the (unknown to Eric ; the impossibility) the reality of his Alice hitching up to the likes of Eric Lischke.
“Well..I s’pect THAT is a question you’ll have to ask Alice about, Eric…” and that was all he would offer in the way of advice to what he saw as a hopeless quest.
In the hiatus of the accompanying silence and soft mustiness of that kitchen, the chatter of the television seemed to increase in decibles enough so that the talk show voice could now be heard clear in the kitchen where they sat in pensive contemplation…
Kenneth Williams..: “I haven’t got a toad in here if that’s what you’re thinking..you wouldn’t catch me with a toad I can’t abide toads..urr..vipers devour toads and I’m glad they do..serpents hear through their jaws, you know…it’s the bone structure that does it..”
“But at the moment, Alice is not here..though I expect her back at any time…she was picked up by a friend of her late husband’s to go to Nuri’ and said she’d be back before tea…so there you go..”
Eric could see that Bennie had tired of the chat and was of an itch and a scratch to get back to the television show…so with the cursory thanking yous and such forth, Eric bade Bennie cheerio and assured him he would indeed ask Alice the next time he met her..and he showed himself out..
It was outside in the clear air of the mallee afternoon whilst kitting up for the ride home that Eric saw Alice get out of a tatty old ford car driven up at that moment by a seedy looking chap with long hair and beard..the man squeezed Alice’s arm on her alighting and whispered something menacing to her as she did so..Alice pulled her arm away and shut the door forcibly, and the man accelerated away with a spinning of the wheels and drove off.
“Hello, Alice.” Eric greeted..
Alice didn’t look too accommodating for idle chat at that moment, but made the best of it..
“Oh…hello Eric…you come to see dad?”
“Well…I’ve seen him…and now I’m seeing you…how are you, Alice?”
Alice shrugged and looked at Eric’s motorcycle..
“You still riding this old thing…why don’t you get a more modern one?” and she wrinkled her nose at the saying…and as she scornfully roamed her eyes over the machine, Eric couldn’t help but notice her absently scratching at her lower arm that was covered with a long sleeve even on such a warm day as this..
“You got an allergy?” Eric asked..
“Yeah…maybe..” Alice seemed irritated by Eric’s concerned question “Why..what business is it of yours..”
Eric was taken aback by the shortness of Alice’s temper..
“I was just thinking that this is the time of year for such things..”
“Yeah..well…I suppose so…sorry for getting angry…” and Alice then turned her head toward Eric like she saw him in a differing light..”It’s just that I owe Steve…the bloke you saw dropping me off…some money and he’s after me to pay him back..”
“How much do you owe?” Eric asked..
“Oh..it’s only twenty dollars..but he’s shitty on it..” and Alice looked hopefully to Eric..” I don’t suppose you could lend it me….it would only be until the dole cheque comes through and then I’ll pay you back!..” Alice hastily finished and she set to scratch her forearm again..
Eric thought for a moment..for money was inculcated into his psyche by his parents as the creed of faith of his family and class..but the immediacy of the request overrode for the moment his caution…but just for the moment…for in the passing moment of his assessing the scene of Alice arriving with the suspicious man and the subsequent behaviour between them, put together with the strange temper of Alice herself then the sudden softening of her attitude toward him in regards to her asking for money, Eric’s natural radar of suspicion honed in on what was the actuality of the situation between himself and any possibility of his dream of starting a life over with this woman in front of him…and he paused in his response..and in that hiatus between the action of “giving and receiving” that allows us clear insight of the moment of doing the action, Eric had a clarifying perception of their situation..for whatever her relationship with himself, this was not the same Alice he had harboured feelings for all these years and to whom he was on the cusp of proposing to….and a sinking feeling of a lost cause swept over him and he could feel all the warmth of his first sighting of Alice this day become but a mockery to his vanity and a sudden, sharp, bitter hatred of life’s false promise overtook him…and in the swift, cruel battering of this awful truth, Eric could hear in a faint waft the silly words of the comedian playing out on the television that day..;
Kenneth Williams.: “I haven’t got a bee in here..I don’t know why you think I got a bee in here..I got no bee in my box..you listen..you can’t hear it buzzing..there are no fangs on a bee..vipers have fangs..they are very fangy creatures are vipers…”and the absolute absurdity of the comedian’s chatter matched to a word in equal absurdity his dreamsand his fantastic imaginations..they struck and battered his ego to a pulp so he nearly slumped to the ground there and then…Eric leaned onto the seat of his motorcycle for a moment…He then quickly regained his composure…
Eric took his wallet from his jacket pocket and opening it, he saw a fiver, a twenty dollar note and a fifty dollar note…Alice gazed pensively at the notes in his wallet..Eric pinched the twenty dollar note in his fingers to extract it…he then looked to Alice, who returned such a pitiful, hopeless gaze to him that he stopped…and he then knew why the temper, the conversation between Alice and the man she owed money to and the scratching…he knew..he knew..then with a sharp, snapping action took the fifty dollar note from the wallet and pushed it into Alice’s outstretched hand and without a second look toward her, quickly pulled his helmet on lest some wetting tears in his eyes would be seen by the woman and he mounted the motorcycle, started the motor and rode out of the gate of the Kroenig’s farm swearing in his heart, never, never to return.