Sunday, February 20, 2011

Listening for ghosts

There was not much traffic as I stepped out into the middle of the road. I could not be bothered walking all the way to the traffic lights, which I saw some way in the distance and well out of my way.

I wove through this traffic easily but when I reached halfway, the cars that had moved through slowly like Brown’s cows, were now replaced by a convoy of fast paced motorbikes. The roar of the engines echoed from the underside of the metal roof tracks on the rooftop that formed a bridge for the trains above.

I managed to dodge them and laughed to myself when I saw one old bike driver spit out his phlegm into the gutter. The wind blew it back up at him and it landed on his coat. He almost veered off the road in an effort to wipe it off.

Serves him right, I thought. Disgusting habit. No sooner had I savoured this thought than a collection of bicycles streaked through, followed by a number of mounted horses.

The road was an obstacle course and I wondered would I ever get through, or would I inevitably be knocked over.

Such is the nature of my dreaming at the moment. I prepare to be knocked over by life. It seems too hard. Too much stuff creeping in at the seams, and too many memories invade my space.

Last week I went with two of my sisters on a tour of our old school with about twenty other women. My sisters and I were by far the oldest. None of our contemporaries from the sixties and seventies were there, only one from the eighties and the rest from the nineties, including one girl who went to Vaucluse the year the nuns decided to close down the school.

Vaucluse was a convent for ladies run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus and steeped in the traditions of this teaching order, a brave strong academic tradition, the female equivalent of the Jesuits. The school began in the early 1880s and for a time was the oldest girls school in the southern hemisphere, but they closed it down for want of students.

The school had always been the poor cousin of its sister school, Genezzano, in Kew. And we, my sisters and I, felt this deeply.

The sporty girls played in competition matches against Gen, and our younger but richer sister school invariably won. Our school attracted the poorer Catholic families of Melbourne, those who wanted a convent education for their daughters but could not afford the higher fees of the prestigious Genezzano.

I was struck by the disparity of our memories, not only those of my sisters and I, but also, the younger women.
‘This was where the Sacred Heart dormitory stood,’ I said when we passed upstairs and gathered on what was once a balcony but has since been closed in to form a few small classrooms.

I could tell the dormitory by its ceiling and its position near the stairs, just as I could tell the year twelve classroom, the room we then called Matriculation. The younger women remembered what I thought was the Sacred Heart dormitory as the secretarial room, the room which my generation once called Commercial. For me Commercial stood where the library and computer room still stands.

I tried to listen out for ghosts as we traipsed through the corridors that had once been off limits, the house in which the nuns’ small rooms stood, row after row, neat tiny cubicles and I shuddered at the thought of a life lived in so small a space, a single bed in a room the size of an en suite.

Yet I did not feel the shiver of fear I had thought I might have felt travelling over what to me was once almost sacred ground.

The nuns have long gone and now the Christian Brothers have taken over the school. They bought it from the nuns and use it as a year nine campus for the boys from Saint Kevin’s and as a central office for their order.

In place of the few pictures that once adorned the walls of our old school, throughout the main hall there are rows of images of boys who triumph in sporting events.

It was like going back to visit your childhood home now taken over by another family who have moved things to their tastes and wiped away most traces of you and yours.

And yesterday we went to the wedding of a friend’s daughter, a friend whom my husband has known for some forty years, well before the birth of the bride.

There is something in the wedding vows that stir up intense feelings. The ones whose marriages have survived the test of time, can feel triumph, confident in the success of their efforts, however strained. They have managed to get through for better and for worse, while those who have not survived their vows and whose marriages have not held fast must cringe internally.

A friend suggested they should remodel the legal and compulsory words of the marital vows into something like: We promise we will try to stick together, but if we wind up divorcing, we will do so with respect towards one another, despite our differences’.

I consider events at this friend’s house, which is where they held the reception to be a measure of the passage of time. I have been going to birthday parties, to wedding anniversaries and celebrations of all kinds for a number of years here, for over thirty years now.

My husband and I started as newly weds and then as parents of very young children. Our children once came to these functions, too but as they reached adolescence they chose to stay away.

The years roll by and we now attend these events alone, not yet quite elderly but almost.

Many among our generation have retired or are considering retirement. Their children are grown and married, in many cases with children of their own. There was a rush of new little ones at this wedding, the grandchildren of the bride’s relatives. She is the first to marry in her sibship of two.

And now today
‘Go back to your hovel,’ my daughter says when I offer to go out to buy the eggs that we have run out of. 'And don't be such a martyr.'

My husband is busy eating the last two eggs and I am trying to write, wracked by the requirement that I attend to my family despite my thoughts to the contrary and their knowledge that they are old enough to attend to themselves.

At this precise moment I hate being me. I hate the pressure I feel I am under to restore everything to order including, the state of my writing room. To make it look like the study I see on certain blogsites of famous writers who work to order, when I am a slob.

My room becomes a storage room for empty shoeboxes, which I stack to one side and the multiple overfilled filing cabinets, necessary for holding my collections.

‘A hovel my daughter calls it, not simply because of the mess I fear but more because she resents my preoccupation with taking myself off to write as I do.

There are not enough hours in the day to lead a writer's life, but I can always dream.
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