[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]
My Curate’s Motor-Bike
Before the lad invested we had comfort here indeed;
Our lives were as an open book, and he who ran might read;
But now we live in other worlds, for since the motor came
My yoke-mate ne’er confides in me, or treats me quite the same.
He used to be a candid man — I like him very well —
But lately I must pick the truth from what he does not tell;
The news he gives is watered, too, so when there’s been defeat
I get one version here from him — another down the street.
The madness got him bit by bit — I marked its sure advance;
An angashore upon a bike would land him in a trance;
He’d leave me talking to myself and watch it forge ahead,
And then he’d slowly stir himself and ask, “What’s that you said?”
Next, like a plague, loquacious men of marked civility
Swooped down, from heaven alone knows where, upon the presbytery;
Each bird of prey a cushat dove in downy meekness dressed,
And each a fine philanthropist to save him from the rest.
And then typed letters came in sheaves, and pamphlets, too, galore,
The table there was strewn with them — I counted ten and more;
And morning, noon, and night he’d sit absorbing their contents,
The two heels round the bishop stuck with grave irreverence.
I’ve never seen a homing soul so doubt-tossed, I must say,
He’d spurn the faith tomorrow, that was in him strong today:
For “someone told him something”, and unto that he’d cling;
’Twas this mysterious “chap I met” who tells him everything.
The latest always was the best — the very thing he sought —
Much better than “the rubbish” which my neighbour’s curate bought;
’Twas fitted up with this and that — it was in short immense;
’Twould do sick-calls around the earth like falling off a fence.
He talked and talked like one possessed as on the madness ran;
Such folly surely never gripped the mind of any man:
“Ignition this”, “combustion that” — I never heard the likes,
You’d think the world was spinning round on works of motor-bikes.
I took a stand as rectors should, and fussed and fumed and that,
And lavished pointed rhetoric and wisdom — on the cat;
But on he went from bad to worse: bedad, it shocked me much
To hear him speak of dignitaries as cylinders and such.
The horsepower of the clergy, too, I heard him dwell upon,
And I’m “a last year’s model”, faith, “with no kick-starter on”;
Still, he laughs best who laughs the last, when all is said and done,
For when the smelly thing arrived, ’twas then we had the fun.
He donned the goggles and the coat, the cap, the gloves, the scarf,
And pushed it to the stable-yard, supported by the staff;
He jacked the wheel and kicked with fine spectacular disdain,
It gave a sort of wheezy cough, and so he kicked again.
Still no result: then, undismayed, he played the second card:
He pushed it off the stand, he did, and wheeled it round the yard;
He wheeled it up, he wheeled it down, until he near expired,
He forced the groom to take a turn, but, faith, he soon got tired.
The small lads gave him useful hints, he told them to be gone,
And when he chased them off the fence he turned the petrol on;
Then, man, he gave a thumping kick and swung into the seat,
And here my hero motor-man goes shooting down the street.
Along the king’s highway he sped on what he calls “his top”;
Upon his top: How are you! Heth, he found he couldn’t stop;
His tank was full of “juice”, it seems, and in his misery
He worked it out the wicked thing would wheel him to the sea.
But through it all the mind was clear, he dodged the straying stock,
If tour he must, ’twere wise, he thought, to tour around the block:
So round and round and round he went, the eyes fixed straight ahead,
And every time at Mrs Flynn’s the congregation spread:
And every time he passed the house which Granny Heafy leased,
That pious person jerked the knee, respectful to the priest;
So round and round and round he went with bump and swerve and skid —
Of course he never told me this, but fifty people did.
Now trouble’s soon forgot, it seems, by all these motor-men;
I hoped he’d sell the wretched thing, but on he came again:
The front veranda corner there is like a tinker’s shop;
Bad cess to it! I don’t know where the thing is going to stop.
He’s made this house a meeting-place for faddists and the likes,
And clerical mechanics come debating motor-bikes;
They talk a man unconscious with their cranks and gears and springs,
And bore and stroke, and this and that, and sparkling-plugs and things.
Now God be with the good old times for ever dead and gone,
When in this cheery room of mine I led the banter on;
For though we spoke of grave affairs, or touched the lighter side,
No man need sit and twirl his thumbs, because disqualified.
Well, youth must have its fling, I ween, and face the future, still
The old grey horse and I shall jog together down the hill;
We’ve come a long, hard, weary way, nor shirked the bonded load,
We’ll carry on and see it through, Old Comrade of the road.
No, not for us the whirring wheel that greets the morning’s call,
We only have “one speed”, my boy, and that’s no speed at all:
The evening finds us laid aside, and dreaming in the sun —
Two “last year’s models” right enough, with engines nearly done.
But tell them this: Ere roads were made, by bridle-track we went,
And won the bush with church and school across a continent;
The journey’s o’er; the chapter’s writ; and take it how we like,
The big things now are waiting for the young man’s motor-bike.
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954
bad cess = a phrase used as a curse meaning “bad luck” (from the meaning of “cess” as a local tax of the late 15th century, as a contraction of “assessment’”)
cushat = wood pigeon (Scottish word)
ween = believe (Middle English word)
yoke-mate = associate, companion, or partner, especially at work (yokefellow)
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