The Last Candles of the Night

By Ian Bedford

Click here to buy The Last Candles of the Night

Philip had no car. He drove a car in India, but in Australia – which lacked water buffalos, street cows, hand-carts and cycle-rickshaws, three-wheeler auto-rickshaws which turned on the spot, and laden wagons wending from the canefields or the cotton-ginning yards – the traffic was too fast for him. Nora should have seen him now, seated on a bench on a harbour ferry, patiently examining his copious printouts and hand- written pages on schools, universities and halls of residence, curricula, fee structures and bursary entitlements.

All these he’d sorted into folders. To Nora, he’d have appeared to be lazing, out here amid the weekday pleasure-craft and the seagulls, but he was hard at work. The dry-as-dust reading matter was not entrancing. It was a means to an end. Allowing his gaze to drift over the low, mutinous bush of the headland, a rest to the eyes after his pages, a rest to the eyes after the foreshore-hugging brick walls, aluminium-frame windows and red-tile roofs, the palatial residences and stingy ‘private hotels’ of the domestic harbourside across the water as you left Circular Quay, Philip recalled what that end was.

He was an educationist. He knew – he addressed – young minds. He addressed young Indian minds. He had addressed young minds in India for half a century, to thunderous (though waning) applause. Such was his vocation in India. Out here he had wanted something different. It was not to be. One role awaited him. His old skills – unremunerated – were back in use.

Young Indians were entering Australia in droves. Neither they, nor their families home in the Punjab, were quite prepared for this experience. On his first trip to out-of-the-way Merry- lands – the day he abandoned Keith Ball – Philip was dismayed by what he found. These Indians had come to Sydney for an education. But they had formed no idea of where to look. Not all, he learned, planned on returning to India when they finished their degrees. Yet they all wanted degrees. They insisted on degrees and, since the universities were closed to them, many had enrolled, at substantial cost, in unheard-of institutions operated by sharks of the deepest water. This was the fault of their ignorance, which Philip aimed to rectify. Their ignorance was not just educational. None had foreseen the malevolent duplicity of agents – Australian agents in India, and Indian agents in India and Australia. A pox on these agents – not all of whom realised they were duplicitous agents. Some thought they were helping. Perhaps he was another such agent.

At some time in Philip’s long absence – punctuated by his short visits home – government in Australia had repented of universities, as if in atonement for a capital sin. Funds and subsidies were curtailed, and into the breach plunged any number of baneful enterprises. Unlike agribusinesses in agri- culture, these businesses offered not even economies of scale. Well under way on Philip’s return was a part-open, part- clandestine traffic in foreign students, many from rich fami- lies (for there were few scholarships), and many from poor, but saving, families. Wealth, or the willingness to pay, was a qual- ification, in some ways a dangerous qualification. The wealth of aspiring students from China and India was precisely what beauty must have been for Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian waitresses and debutantes enticed to Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Such wealth was the only sound reason for cash- strapped entrepreneurs with no conscience or background to hone their abiding interest in these forlorn castaways.

Philip could not be too reproachful of these pitiless maggots. He, too, had glimpsed his opportunity in a brand of distress. He wanted to be of use. He thought he could help. But was he helping, or who was he helping? The three girls at Merry- lands were his only success. He had found them a programme, in the nick of time – it was May – to prepare them for the mid-year intake at one of the rural universities. Their docu- ments were in: he had hounded them. Victory to Philip! – he had had a card printed, out of the euphoria of that result, with the title ‘Educational Consultant’ and an abbreviated list of his achievements in India. (Notable shysters had similar cards.) The girls at Merrylands would soon be part of a Universities Admissions Programme. Philip believed they would complete that programme, yet he also knew or guessed that these girls, who were close companions, who had lived half their lives in Australia, who had matriculated (just) at Australian schools with Australian-born friends, and were polishing up their results for better things – these girls would not leave Merrylands or the city of Parramatta to study in a country town university when the time came. Philip had had a glimpse of their world, as they of his, and although he had infected them in one sitting with a taste for the glamour of higher learning, they for their part had uncovered to him the whirl of their world of film-song and film-clip video stores, Punjabi-fare emporia and imported Punjabi designer churidar and mirrored-blouse boutiques in one stroll along Wigram Street, Harris Park. He could hold out no hope to these imperfect students of a big-city university enrolment; and they would not abandon their world yet. Any disconsolacy of theirs as immigrants he failed to detect and the help he offered would lead to nothing.

Philip suffered and squirmed at the memory of his two visits to Sydney Airport, to apprehend Indian youngsters travelling alone. These kids, raised in India, had seen touts before, and knew how touts forgather at airports. Philip was outnumbered and quite outclassed by his rivals: the sharpest, who turned up both times, carried a placard for a business college which (Philip knew) had not yet made the down payment on its mid-city premises and was recruiting for staff in the strangest places. Because he spurned placards, Philip had approached his airport quarry in a confidential manner, which made things worse. Rocked now by the swell from the Heads, which trans- formed the forty-minute zoo crossing briefly, though fiercely, into an ocean voyage, he contemplated the drift of his plans. He had expected to be taken on in a government programme. His future, he had thought, was in Australian education. He had finished with India. But it seemed he had not finished with Indians. He had need now of some government accreditation to place these kids. Not a chance of it. No accreditation for Philip. Perhaps ‘families’ would be different.

What Philip meant by families was an institution within which one or more adults would instruct a minor in what was best for her or him. This meant he could advertise. Parents read Indian Link, India Down Under and the Fijian and Sri Lankan Indian papers. His new approach bore fruit at once. But it meant refocusing his attention on school leaving-age candidates, or misfit teenagers who were unhappy with their school, or whose parents were unhappy with their school. Now the second such interview lay before him. The first had gone badly. Philip had not allowed himself proper time. He blamed ambience entirely. The session had unravelled in a Serbian souvlakia restaurant in Hurstville where Indian vegetarian parents were not at home. Why he had chosen that place he would never know. Why had he resisted the family invitation of a home visit? A parasite on a payroll, who would not know an Indian from a Red Indian, would have avoided that mistake.

The ferry berthed at Taronga Park wharf and Philip, ignoring the waiting bus – he was always a walker – climbed the steep hill to the Aquarium entrance. There they were: a jovial father; a handsome boy, not sullen at all; another grown male, perhaps an uncle; and besides these, attached to their party, an agreeable-looking Chinese boy and his father. Philip, from a distance, was surprised by their number, and rather hoped the companions would fall away. If not, he would make the best of it.

He did make the best of it. Midway through the after- noon, the party of six had bonded together, were enjoying the animals, enjoying each other’s company and talking educa- tion. The Indian boy, Ashwin, from Ludhiana, lingered long in the platypus enclosure while the Chinese boy, Terry, could not get enough of the elks, Barbary goats and other ruminants. Philip was pleased to find that Ashwin was as charming as he appeared and was not warring with his father, a lab manager in a medical tests facility. The uncle was a doctor, with his own practice. He had lived many years in Australia and it was this, rather than his profession as such, that commended him to his younger brother who, as a new arrival, deferred to his foolish opinions as a matter of course. The Chinese father said nothing, being there to accompany his son, Ashwin’s greatest friend. These two were year-eleven students at a government school, Fort Street. What did they imagine was wrong with Fort Street? Philip was afraid that both parents, goaded by the uncle, intended to shoehorn their sons into a private school, at cost, for no educational reason.

This uncle was proving a bugbear. At one time Philip found himself conducted on a personal tour of the zoo, harangued by the uncle, who even lectured them on the Floral Clock. That was not all. Success in Australia had turned him into an Indian chauvinist. He found the Australian birds ‘raucous’, the kanga- roos ‘ratty’ and it was he who ordered Ashwin to stop hunting for the platypus in its tank of weed – “there’s nothing there” – when in fact Ashwin had been contemplating its movements for some time. He said the tiger was from Bengal, though it was Sumatran, and complained it was impounded in too small a cage (this was true), in contempt of its fiery nature. Philip said at once, “No worse than torturing the animal.”
“I call this torturing the animal.”

“No worse than beating it with sticks through the bars. I’ve seen that happen in India. In Hyderabad Zoo I watched a visitor lobbing one-rupee coins to the otter. It couldn’t resist catching them. It sank to the bottom of the pool.”

“One-rupee coins. When were you in India? There are no one-rupee coins in India.” But Philip was relating an incident of fifty-one years before.

Was the otter dead?” asked Terry. He was glared at, not by his own father, but by the uncle.

They toured the cages in silence. Philip took no pride in his intervention, but he had silenced the uncle. The boys turned to Philip with a new respect. Ashwin’s father, deeply conflicted, passed some way ahead and was the first to glimpse the lyre- bird.

“You should see the village boys near Ludhiana,” related Ashwin – himself a town boy – “teasing the monkeys.”

Terry recalled a host of zoo incidents in Malaysia.
They bought buns and Pepsi and picnicked on a slope away from the kiosk. Lapped by the fronds of the cycads, towered over by the eucalypts, they identified free cockatoos, parrots and rosellas and basked in the vision of the harbour framed by the leaves of the paperbarks and the smooth, rosy limbs of the angaphoras. Things were so perfect that Philip was reminded of his own chauvinism, his Australian chauvinism, which he had forgotten he had. But tasks were imminent. His folders were in his hand. Straws in the wind, pointers in their conver- sation, had disposed him to address three topics: matriculation subjects for the boys for next year, choices in tertiary education, and things to do with themselves besides studying. With a wary eye on the uncle – who had lapsed, however, into no-man’s- land – he had begun thumbing through his documents when the Chinese father gave utterance for the first time: “What will you charge?”

“Nothing for you,” said Philip, surprised at the question. The man was superfluous to their party, though Philip was glad of the boon companionship of Terry and Ashwin. “I won’t charge anything, you should charge me. It’s been a pleasure for me too.”

“No, no,” muttered the father. The boys looked away. On cue, they discovered a cage they hadn’t investigated down a pathway and took themselves off. The four grown men, as if orphaned, were left to fend with one another. Ashwin’s uncle came superbly to life. “I’m sure you have a schedule of fees,” he said. “By the week, by the hour …”

“By the hour,” Philip repeated. “By what hour?” It was dawning on him slowly.

“Terry is good at mathematics,” said Terry’s father. “He will not need coaching in mathematics. But I think you are an English teacher.”

“I am not a coach or a teacher.” It seemed to Philip that the verdant scene was too brightly lit and that this was fire, fire curling each leaf as his venture turned ashen. How could Ashwin’s father – to whom everything had been explained – have made this mistake? After a twenty-minute phone conversa- tion, and exchange of emails! “I am not a teacher,” he repeated, still softly, but without explaining, without being able to explain what he was. An ‘educationist’? What was an ‘educationist’ if not a teacher?

The men gaped at him.

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