Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sensitivity, skin deep

Yesterday, I was trying to find out what was wrong with the vacuum cleaner, one of those whizz bang Dyson things that’s meant to pick up pet hair, and somehow in the process, the suction peeled off skin from my finger.

It seemed a minor injury.  It was a minor injury but the pain I felt through this injury is nothing less than ten out ten, whenever the skinned part comes in contact with water or anything other than fresh air. 

And twenty-four hours later it still weeps.


I told my husband it felt like a burn.  I’m familiar with them.  I’ve burned myself often enough over the stove while cooking, but this is a new one. 

I think of St Bartholomew, the apostle allegedly skinned alive for spreading his faith.

The nerve endings in our skin must be vast, or maybe not on our skin, so much as directly under our skin. 

Just below the epidermis lies a land of sensitivity that’s enough to make your heart and body break.  It’s only a small wound, as I say, and I’m sure in time it’ll be fine.  but under this morning’s shower…

 For now it has stopped hurting because I hold my finger gently above the other fingers, give it air, and freedom from further abrasion. 

Speaking of which, there have been a few of late, abrasions that is.  More the familial kind.  We are having a battle in my family of origin about the nature of our family archive. 

To me an archive is a collection box for memories of the past, but my older brother wants it to have a more formal ring.  He wants it to include only historical documents, photographs and other memorabilia of the family. 

This brother does not consider memoir written by contemporary, still living, people sufficient to include in the archive. 

My various siblings and I battle over this.  Though many refuse to participate and are silent, the other half are drawn in and argue over the rights and wrongs of this. 

Why not have two boxes in the archive, my husband reckons?  One for the official stuff that clearly warrants a place in the archive, though once upon a time some of this would have been contestable, too – my mother’s memoir for instance.  There are enough of her siblings who reckon my mother got things wrong.  Not that memoir can ever be about absolute facts and truthfulness, though there are some who demand it. 

In any case, my husband suggests we have one box for the archival of the clearly-past and another box that can act as a sort of clearinghouse. Things like people’s stories of their lives, their recollections, can go into the clearing house, to be corrected as necessary, and in time after some people die, be moved over to the official archive. 

One of my other brothers put up his chronicles and it has upset some people, both for its inaccuracies and in places for its insensitivities.

At times, he writes about things that are somewhat at a distance from him, despite popping up in his diary.  Events that perhaps others should be free to write about when they feel ready, or not at all, but not have this brother display it as a family event on the page for all to see without analysis or relevance or context.

That said, this brother, in my view, has every right to put up his stories – not stories more a diarising of events over part of his life time – even if others disagree.

 The old archival footage is non-contestable, almost – there’s no one alive involved who could protest – but the other stuff, the stuff that pertains to those of us who are still alive, is like trying to hold a boiling saucepan with no handle. 

How do we pick it up without getting scalded, or skinned?

And then next week, we escape from it all, with a sojourn to Scotland.

As my husband said to me over dinner last night, ‘Who would have dreamed that we would ever go to Scotland?’ It seems so far out of our familiar orbit: the Dutch, the German, the Irish, the English. 

But our youngest daughter decided that Edinburgh University was calling and that’s where she is living for a few more months now and that’s where we will follow, for a couple of weeks. 

Only a short time to swallow all that difference and distance, but enough perhaps to get a taste. 

While we are in Glasgow, we will meet with one of my best blogging friends, Jim Murdoch, and his wife Carrie, and the virtual world that is the blogosphere will for an hour or so – and in some ways forevermore – become real.    

Our son-in-law’s parents, who will travel from Germany to visit him and his small family, will stay in our house and care for our dog and cats, while we traipse though the Highlands for adventure. 

Children force you on adventures you might otherwise not venture into.  It takes that much to get me away from the comfort and ostensible certainty of my life at home - notwithstanding the unexpected wounds.  

But that’s a whole other story, why it is that, unlike so many people I know, I prefer not to travel further afield than Victoria. 

Burned by the grief of my mother’s immigration to Australia over fifty years ago, and her heart overladen with a grief too heavy for her to carry, I shared it with her, that grief, even though I was born here. 

I know from my mother, what it’s like to be forced away from your home.  Hence my compassion for all those who come here from other lands, for whatever reasons.  

They lose touch with their idea of home.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Angry owls

During construction work at the Camberwell market someone had dug a hole and left the dirt piled high in one corner.  I noticed it as I bought my fruit and vegetables; in between the grit and grains of dirt there were tiny pieces of porcelain, buried for years that people could now reclaim. 

I found a small cat, blue and white, a girl, like the pudding dolls from Christmas time, and a cracked donkey in grey china, each miniature a treasure.

 I dug them out and put them aside on a shelf, beside the florist. 

My husband distracted me.  He was on his own adventure nearby.  An archaeologist had planted a sword, not unlike my father’s army dress sword, in the bottom of another deep hole next to the market.  

The archeologist planned to cover the sword in soil to establish the rate of metal degradation over time.  My husband was fascinated.  I was not. 

When I returned to my treasure pile I found it had gone.  Someone must have moved it.   

I searched all over the market until out on the street I came upon a truck, whose driver had lifted the last shovel from my beautiful pile of dirt, poured it into the back of his truck and then drove off. 

I was furious.  Filled with a childish rage of helplessness.  How could they do this and not only to me?  There were others who had started their own collections of porcelain bits.  Others left disappointed.

I woke from this dream still angry and my mind travelled back to my grandson the day before when he and I had explored the Melbourne museum.

They keep a few Australian native birds and fish in a mock forested environment in an outer enclosure there.   A ramp enables visitors to walk to eye height with the top of the trees.

There on a lone gum tree we saw a young tawny frogmouth.  He was asleep at first but then looked up and around in our direction.   



‘Why is he angry?’ my grandson asked.
‘He’s not angry.  He’s just curious,’ a nearby museum assistant said.  

Owls have a way of looking angry all the time, those deep set eyes, that high brow.  

This owl was not angry but after my dream I was as angry as any three-year old tricked into thinking her pile of treasure is safe only to discover someone has taken it away, without even asking. 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

A memoirist’s nightmare:


Eleven people living under the one roof is certain to attract mess.  Our place was no exception.  


The paint, most of which had turned a yellow brown through my father’s smoking peeled from the ceilings, while down below the skirting boards and architraves were pockmarked with gaps where the white undercoat showed through. 

Although he had built his first house in Australia, this one was a rental property and my father saw no need to bother with repairs.  Besides, he had no time.  Nine children and he worked full time in a city accountancy firm and by night tried to study for his advanced exams to become a chartered accountant at the same time as he fought off and oftentimes gave into his desire to drink away his sorrows. 

His sorrow piled high like the unwashed dinner dishes in the sink and he spent as much time ignoring them as we kids spent trying to escape our various sets of chores.

All except my oldest sister, who as the oldest girl, took on the role of substitute housekeeper willingly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me then, though these days my sister reports she resented all the tasks that fell to her. 

At the time she could see no way around it.  Plus, she hated the mess.  

The weekly washing needed to be done, washed in the ancient washing machine in the laundry, tugged through the roller and hung out to dry.  When dry, the washing also needed to be brought in sorted, folded and some of it ironed. 

Before she went out to to work in a paid job, my mother sometimes took the pile of washing into the lounge room, piled it onto a chair beside her, dragged the low lying coffee table in front of her own chair and covered it with blankets and a sheet to form a temporary ironing table. 

From there she sat behind the table and ironed my father’s shirts, school dresses, the boys shorts and other items that needed their creases ironed out.  As she ironed she watched the television and sipped from her cup of tea, the one that always sat beside her. 

Three times a day, my mother allowed herself a cigarette, for morning and afternoon tea and then after dinner, sometimes she smoked a cigarette as she ironed, lost in the fog of television and the rhythm of cigarette to mouth, cigarette to ashtray, hand to iron, iron spread out across the back or collar or sides of a shirt till it was as flat as a full yacht sail in a breeze and then upright with the iron as she rattled the shirt into its place on a hanger. 

My mother lined the ironed shirts alongside and hung them from the window ledge. Her face the picture of preoccupation and pain.  

My older sister was lucky then that the ironing did not always fall to her but once my mother took up her job as a child care worker at the Allambie reception centre for children who had been forced out of their homes through domestic violence, parental separation or whatever, my sister had to take up the ironing as well. 

I stood in line reluctantly.  Not for me the housework, the ironing, the cooking and the cleaning.  Not for me the smooth running of the household, I wanted to escape much like my mother had done before in her own girl hood when she loved nothing but to be upstairs away from all responsibilities with a book. 

My mother kept up this habit into adulthood. 

I did not spend my hours reading so much as I wanted to play or explore the streets outside, or camp out with my brothers in the back garden.  I did not want to spend my days locked in domesticity.

And then there came the days when my oldest brother who was soon to leave home decided the house needed an overhaul. 

I could not escape such times, none of us could.  

Somehow my oldest brother must have persuaded our parents to stay in the lounge room with their cups of tea and cigarettes – my brother only succeeded in this while our father was not drinking, and then issued instructions to the rest of us on how we might proceed to clean up the mess of the kitchen and surrounds.  

He gave the taller boys the task of washing down walls.  We little ones washed and dried dishes.  My sister, second in command, one below my second older brother who might well have been in the infectious diseases hospital at the time, put things away. 

My older brother instructed another sister on the art of sweeping the floor.  Another he directed towards the dustpan and brush and talked to yet another brother about how he might stomp down on the rubbish bin outside to make more room. 

In those days we did not have green plastic garage bags.  Rubbish went directly into a bin and the more compacted it became the more you could add on. 

The orders continued as each task was completed.  

My brothers were given the job of collecting hot soapy water in a bowl and then taking to the windows, one to wipe clean with soap and water, the other to clear away the streaks with a fresh old towel.  

And so we turned the squalid kitchen into a sparkling jewel, the one great pleasure my mother’s satisfaction when she came in after several hours and admired our handiwork. 

I was ten, maybe younger, surely younger, because this happened before my oldest brother – ten years older than me – left home as an eighteen year old, and so time plays tricks on me. 

The point of describing this mess and its transformation in such detail is both to talk about how much memory can play tricks on us.  The events we remember from childhood can be inaccurate, such as my age when all this happened and the sheer details of who did what.

There’s a brawl going on in my family of origin at the moment about the family archive on my mother’s side. 

This same oldest brother who managed to clear up so much of the mess.  No, that’s not true, he didn’t clear up the mess, he issued instructions for the rest of us to clear up the mess.  This same brother has decided that an archive should be more a repository for factual details of births, deaths and marriages, and for documents that contain ‘accurate’ details about how lives were lived, preferably in the long ago. 

This same brother is concerned that the archive not turn into the rubbish bin I described earlier.  With no plastic garbage bags to keep the rubbish in place, he fears the archive might become compacted with the detritus of people’s lives, people who are still alive.  

This same brother worries that some of us us might write things to include in the archive that might offend others; that maybe some have already offended others.

 So begins the memoirist’s nightmare: How do we write our stories without causing offence to others who do not want to be cast in a particular light?

Who holds the key to the archive?  Who decides on what gets included and what is left out? 

I reckon let it all be included but let people put their names to it and when factual details like dates and places of birth or death or names are wrong, correct them.  

At the same time, memories and observations and so-called opinions are those of the writer only and the writer cannot speak for others only for herself, however much she might represent others in her writing and they might then see themselves there through the lens of her words and they may not like it, but you cannot control how readers read and what writers write and if you try, something like what happens in the Lego movie will result.  

The evil Lord Business tries to glue every Lego piece into place so that his worldview prevails and can never be moved or made different. 

In other words, sterility sets in.  Instead of a living breathing archive filled with beauty and with mess, we have a static universe. 


Saturday, February 28, 2015

No need for possessions


It wasn’t everyday I went out for an extravagant lunch, but on this day I went with a group from my department to lift morale, and Sean came, too.  Despite the call for cheer, everyone clock watched.  Everyone ordered fast and ate quickly in time to get back to work within the allocated hour but Sean and I moved slowly over our meals and conversation.  One by one my colleagues left and by the time they’d all gone, Sean and I were left alone.
‘How about it?’ Sean said.  His eyes raised, his lips moist.
I thrilled at the thought of such unspeakable behaviour, the stuff of novels, and fell in.  We booked a room in a hotel over the road from the shrine.  I even paid the bill.  Why should the man always pay for the woman? I reasoned.
‘Possessions,’ Sean told me, ‘weigh you down.  It’s better to live with little more than the clothes in your suitcase.’
  Sean and his partner lived like this he told me as we peeled off our clothes and I wondered what she might have thought about my taking possession of her man on this crisp autumn day near the shrine on St Kilda Road where the ghosts of soldiers long dead once gathered. 
It was a small room in a low cost hotel with only a view of the sides of office buildings but the sheets were crisp and clean and privacy was guaranteed. 
He bedded me without ceremony.  In those days I operated on remote control much of the time, a woman disappointed in her relationships, and in her chosen career as a social worker; a woman who had wanted to help people but found herself in need of help instead.  I did not know this at the time. At the time I thought only of how wicked I had become and what excuses I could offer back at work.
Nina, the deputy social worker, called me into her office the next day, not long after I had arrived, a little less bold than the day before when I made the decision to leave a message with the secretary to say I’d fallen ill after lunch and would not be in for the rest of the day.
‘You can’t do things like that,’ Nina said.  She did not buy the line I had been ill the day before.  She’d been with us at lunch.  She’d seen me stay behind with Sean.  He also failed to return to work, but she was too polite to put two and two together, other than to tell me, it must not happen again. 
Within a week, I resigned my job at the hospital.  Not because of Nina or Sean or that stolen afternoon but because I could no longer tolerate the idea of being a handmaiden to the doctors who saw social workers as their secretarial assistants in matters of health benefits and first port of call on where to go after discharge when a person is too old or frail to go home alone.  This was not what I had studied for.
As for Sean, I never saw him again, but his name popped up ten years later when a Commonwealth policeman knocked on my door. 
‘Do you know a Sean McCloud?’ he asked.  I nodded my head and he told me the story.  For the several years now, they had been investigating a certain Peter Hill, alias Sean McCloud, wanted by the Canadian police for extortion.  Interpol were on the lookout and they had contacted Sean’s ex-colleagues. 
‘Did you know he was not a qualified social worker?’ the policeman asked.  I shook my head.  
Sean was an imposter who took on professional disguises wherever he travelled as a way of funding his life style, the policeman told me.  He lived off the largesse of others.  He took possession of their possessions and left them wondering.