He is the middle brother and he works hard. It comes naturally. At least it feels natural; and as a schoolboy he found there were rewards for this because teachers became convinced they had inspired him; some spoke with hope for his future. For a while he was as interested in sport as he was in finishing his homework. He was okay at football and a little better at cricket. In his boy’s mind he looked forward to playing football for Richmond inside a much bigger, muscled body with thick hair and stringy tendons in his neck, a smile of large, even teeth and along his jaw dark whiskers. He had been gifted only with a head for numbers, anything to do with those fast, abstract flocks inside his head, up to the left and just above the eyebrow. Calculations whirled inside him in the silence that adheres to numbers. He worked hard at keeping it all going in there.
His spiky hair thickened on his head and his eyes went even bluer as he gained his reputation for being brilliant at one or two academic things. He did not play football for Richmond. His older brother was much better at cricket and at talking to girls, even talking with their girl cousins. Girls didn’t seem to worry his older brother, who was soon drinking beer. Their younger brother was not sure which one of them to follow. You can picture this youngest brother sizing up the two older ones, as though trying to find a passage between them. This youngest brother had a worried expression on his face in family photographs. He became a blur, but a blur with a book in his hand because he discovered that he loved reading.
Because this middle boy worked hard his parents left him alone. He discovered he could more or less please himself what he did as long as his teachers and parents believed he was working hard. He guessed, soon enough, that this was what defined him: he was happily busy.
He finished school before he even started to learn to drive a car; he had not kissed a girl or had one look at him as though she might want to kiss him. It didn’t matter, because he could now go to university and make even more daring calculations in that spinning corner of his mind, which turned out to be larger than he had thought it could be, and more mysterious. He too discovered beer. It was okay. He became infatuated with two girls at once, and drinking beer helped him to cope with this, though it put him to sleep. Sleep seemed unnatural. He suspected that sleep was what people thought they should do, and that if they thought differently, then perhaps sleep would not be needed at all, or not so much of it. He experimented with all-night study binges, but something frightening happened in his mind when he did that. His father looked and sounded like a sleepwalker, and his mother seemed to be telling lies all the time, badly. He learned to keep count of the hours of his sleep.
As they reached their twenties, his older brother played cricket for a local suburban team and most of the time he had a whole team of mates around him, shouting and laughing about nothing, or about beer and cricket. Among them ‘googly’ seemed to be a very witty word. This older brother wore stained white pants, more grey than white after a while. Their younger brother was trying to grow a goatee and he mentioned Kafka, Kerouac and Hemingway as though they might turn up at any moment and demand something outrageous like a truly black coffee or the loan of a scarf.
The middle brother did not own a scarf, not even a Richmond scarf. He worried about his younger brother’s sanity. He mentioned this to his father. He noticed for the first time how red and swollen his father’s face was. His father seemed to have been beaten around by the thoughts that flew through him. He had the same worried expression that was there in the younger brother’s eyes.
For the next decade the middle brother kept working hard and he discovered much. Economics, macro and micro, opened up to him like tropical flowers loosening their petals right in front of his eyes. There are numbers within, behind and all the way through everything we do. He came to understand graphs and tables, which speak their own special knowledge. He fell in love with a tall Irish woman he met in a hotel, a woman who had a musical voice, a gift for painting, and what he thought of as a sharpness of mind. A quickness of mind. But more than that she moved always with a purpose, and he wanted to be taken along with her. She loved him for his thick hair, his small physique, the numbers spinning behind his eyes, and the thinking he did. She liked all of that immensely, and she was willing to go across the city to Richmond with him, where she became a mother as well as a lover, and found work as an art therapist.
He didn’t understand any of it, but it was engrossing in ways he could not have imagined. He continued to work as hard as ever. The years seemed to pour themselves into him as though he had an insatiable thirst for them. He loved his three children. His brother continued to play cricket on weekends far beyond the age when it was appropriate. His younger brother wrote books and became well known for his public lectures. The middle brother found himself in his work advising government ministers on how to understand the numbers that flow through everything, through the world of taxes, through work, through decisions about the care of children, the control of gambling, and the fate of the homeless. He wrote many reports for these ministers, then he supervised whole floors of public servants writing more reports. Bureaucrats from across the city wanted to meet with him for a coffee or just a chat.
Sometimes he had to advise unhappy or incompetent public servants to find other paths in their lives, paths that did not involve numbers or report writing. He turned over in bed at night thinking of what it might be like to find another path. He hoped that perhaps the gentle push he gave those unhappy servants was down a new path they might have taken anyway. Numbers, like time itself, and the paths we follow, are all invisible, though no less real for that.
He saw that his children were going along their own paths, eating up time in their own ways, dismissing him or listening to him as they pleased. His two daughters seemed, like their mother, to understand something about how to find their way through each day as though the way ahead was clearing for them as they went. His son was quiet and sharp, waiting perhaps. Like his father, the son’s hair was spiky, and he was only just okay at football.
His wife, who had been with him for nearly twenty years now, listened to his stumbling talk about all these matters. She was an artist and a therapist in everything she did. Sleep came easily to her. She had confidence in him. They slept together under a cotton doona like creatures in a malleable burrow. His family was mostly healthy, the children loving both of them, and somehow despite their differences seeming to be seeds from a pod, for so much was understood in this home without many words being spoken. It worked, not perfectly, not without tears, and certainly not without fear, but mostly the days were like a view of the sea from a grassy hillside, sunlight and breezes everywhere, and all the details managing to find themselves in equilibrium.
His mother died suddenly and everyone was in tears. He was amazed at how unprepared he was for the inevitable. His father shrank into himself, his older brother drank less beer and looked more thoughtful, and even developed jowls. This brother’s knowledge of cricket had become infinitely subtle. It was not even cricket, really, when he spoke of it. When his brother talked of cricket he felt there was something he had not understood about those numbers swirling away within everything. And his younger brother, there were times when he disappeared. There were women who followed him, attached themselves to him, or perhaps he was the one attached. Always the eyes that looked out from this younger brother’s face were seeing things that no-one else had imagined yet.
The middle brother was like a distance runner high on a feeling of endless strength, wet with a mighty sweat, a chest full of air, and arms and legs moving even in his sleep. The numbers that had become slightly fewer and more difficult to understand over the years were still spinning through him tirelessly, and he was still interpreting them for ministers. He had worked hard for governments of all kinds, shaping each of them, he thought, in small ways towards an understanding that did not take the numbers as an end or even a beginning, but saw the numbers for what they were: the smallest of workers in cities of numbers, each citizen-number going about its business as though the simple perfection of work is all we need. It was not much, but it was breathtaking. He hurried to work each day, his full briefcase banging against his leg.
He began to read novels, each page numbered, each page a certain number of words, and soon he was caught in the turbulent river of fiction, rolling in it, taken by currents he could not control. It was all he could do to lie beside his wife at night and not fall out of the bed from giddiness. She was pleased to find him there, as she always was, for she seemed to know the lengths he had gone each day in his mind to find his way back to this place beside her. She told him she was no longer an art therapist, that she had changed her life, that she was now a nurse in an institution that offered physical care for people near to death. He did not understand what she was saying, but he knew it was something to do with the numbers inside a human heart, the way they count down each life. He read Kafka. His children, now young adults and living sometimes at home and sometimes with friends in chaotic old houses, also quietly began reading, for he left books around the house for them to take, stacked in corners, piled on tables, lined up along the hallway. Books are numberless, he thought, potentially endless. Sometimes he gave books away to friends to make more room for other books in his house.
Then at work one day his superior asked to see him. His superior was a young man. How long had it been that his superiors had been younger than him? He felt like a soldier whose old and trusted generals have fallen, and now a new generation of ambitious commanders have occupied the tents, the towers, the positions of strategic importance. He has never been to war. Why is he thinking like this? Why is his heart jumping like a child inside him? He remembers something his younger brother said, about the way words scarcely understand us. By the time he has allowed these thoughts to move through him, his superior has told him that there is a bottleneck in the organisational structure, and that he will have to move aside. A desk has been assigned to him, over there, and though his salary will remain the same impressive number of dollars, he will no longer be responsible for a whole floor of public servants. ‘We will find you some projects to work on, don’t worry.’ His working life is suddenly without urgency.
He goes home from work and everything has changed but everything is exactly the same. He understands now what all those novels have been getting at when the worst happens to the best characters. He is lost, about two-thirds of the way through the novel of his own life, and he has no idea how to go on with it. Usually some coincidence, some lucky meeting, some unexpected twist arrives at this point in a novel or a story (unless it is one of those dark and desperate modernist works). He has no visitation, no epiphany. His satchel in his hand is empty. He cannot get interested in the new novel by his bedside. His family does not notice that anything is different. He can see that they are falling in love, or wanting love, going on with work or study and with talk, that for them life is quite satisfactory or quite disastrous as the case may be.
He has a desk at work and beyond that no real work to fill his days or his head. He has barely come to understand the smallest truths about those numbers spinning inside him. How many people have felt like this? Has everyone felt like this? Is this the way his father felt before he left everything behind? He knows now that the difference between fiction and living is that in living there really are no endings, there can only be endurance. And endurance is not endurance, it is only the insistence of the present moment on always arriving.
His suit has become ill-fitting, for he must be losing weight. He notices the lingering quality of autumn sunshine, and he thinks how foolish all that willingness to work might have been. He is waiting for something to happen. It is not such a bad feeling, but hollow. He remembers walking in the bush with his children in a forest where the ground was treacherous with wombat holes. The earth had been honeycombed below, and at any moment one of them might have fallen through into one of those fat burrows the wombats dig. This is how he feels now. A fall into an earthy, crumbling darkness. It could happen at any moment.
He feels as if he is a failed batsman walking back to the pavilion, thinking he did not see what was coming. He has learned that googly (so close to ‘goodly’ in its look) is also the doosra, a Punjabi word for ‘the other one’, the outsider, the stranger, an intruder. He remembers bending down over his father lying in a hospital bed, wanting to gaze into his eyes to exchange this looking-at-each-other for perhaps the last time, and realising his father was preoccupied with some stranger who had just arrived in his consciousness.
He wakes from uneasy dreams in his bed at night: there were mists moving in over trees on a mountainside in his dream, and below a man was jogging round an oval; his daughter was nearby with her head bent over a book; from the next room it seemed the sharp and purposeful crackling of meat being braised in a pan; on the walls the swirls of light-filled colour in his wife’s paintings; and a memory of old Silas Marner plainly telling his daughter, ‘I shall get older and helplesser’. He manages to breathe, his limbs moving with confidence in the spiralling turns and twists of these numberless currents.