Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Alamein train

I sprayed my glasses with lens cleaner this morning to get a better perspective. I wiped them with the soft cloth one of my daughters gave me some time ago after her travels in Holland.  It imitates a Delft blau pattern of birds, flowers, leaves and squiggles, in blues, black and white.  

I need a fresh perspective. 

When I was ten I sat one day at the front gate of our house in Wentworth Avenue for long enough that the sun began to warm my skin. I sat still, hopeful no one might notice me.  

My older sister had issued house-cleaning instructions to me and my other sisters and brothers and I did not want to join them. 

I could have been clearing out lost objects from under my bed, or wiping over the dusty mantelpiece, instead I sat in the sun.  

Why must I work?  Why must I bother with the busy stuff of life when there was all this peace to be had at a gatepost in the early spring sunshine?

The others must have been busy enough not to notice my absence, or they, too, might have taken to hiding.  Only my older sister would be hard at it, cleaning and sweeping, mopping and dusting. 


Only my older sister cared about these things.  She still does.  Her house is immaculate while mine is a frenzy of clutter. 

In those days, our mother took the train from Alamein.  It stopped at all stations to Camberwell and only there joined the Lilydale line to the city.  

My mother was the only one in my family to take this train. Every Saturday when she was rostered to work she took the train to Alamein and from there she walked to Elgar Road and the children’s home where she worked.  

And every Saturday at the end of the day from five o’clock onwards my sister and I waited for our mother’s train to make the return trip to the city, stopping at all stations, including ours in East Camberwell, from which she would emerge. 

Train after train came and went and each time I heard the thrumming on the line that signified a train approaching, I peered ahead filled with expectation. 

 My sister and I watched after each train had stopped as doors opened and passengers alighted, hopeful that the silhouette of our mother might soon step onto the station and then we would be safe. 

But there were as many trains passed without my mother on board as the train that eventually carried her to us.

My sister and I, one on either side, then walked with our mother through the tunnel from the station that led up to the electricity output station, across past the scout hall and down through the park that eventually joined Canterbury Road and the final stretch home.

We did not tell our mother about our day at home with our father. We had learned to keep our minds focussed on the happy things, the good things, the joy of walking side by side with our mother at last, the smell of pink blossom from the trees outside the scout hall, the first sprinkling of spring rain. 

We held our hands over our heads and sped up our steps to keep from getting wet before we reached the shelter of the shops. 

I did not want to go home to my father, but I knew there was no other choice, no other way of living our lives other than the way we lived. 

By now his mood had dropped into one of darkness.  A tall angry man stuck in his chair, cemented there, as if frozen in time.  His comfort, the bottle at his side from which he took slurps, like a hobo in the movies. 

We did not greet him on our return but went straight for the kitchen where my mother took off her coat and filled the sink with water.  She dropped in a pile of potatoes and held each one in turn to scrub off the dirt with her fingernails, until her nails were black and each potato bare skin.  Then she left the potatoes on the sink to rinse before taking them to the chopping board for skinning and cutting. 

My father staggered into the kitchen from time to time and each time he grew louder and angrier.  He hectored my mother from the door but we said nothing.  

We were trained in the art of pretence.  We were skilled at behaving as though we were not there. 

Two small girls crouched under the kitchen table holding onto our dolls as if they were safety harnesses until our father left the room, only to wait again for his return. 

In time, my mother went into the lounge room to talk to my father who had called out for her so often she could no longer ignore him, however skilled she was in the art of invisibility.

We two girls sat under the table and addressed our dolls.  How bad they were.  How much they needed scolding.    

The potatoes boiled in their water till there was no water left to boil. 

'Autobiographers lead perilous lives'. We write our version of events and wait for others to attack in much the way my mother waited for my father in the kitchen.  We wait for someone to raise objections to what we have written.  To some, those most critical, the content of the writing is all that matters.  The content and the associations these readers make to their own lives. 

‘You have violated my privacy,’  they say.  You have spoken about people who do not want to be written about.

‘Tough,’ my daughter says when I complain of recent events.  ‘That’s what writers do.  They write about people.’ 

And those who read with an agenda, who seek to find traces of themselves in the words, or to find fault with the writer, do not read with open minds, but with a scorched earth policy that says:  you have exposed the family to ridicule.  You must be punished.

In totalitarian regimes, writers develop ways of communicating underground, ways in which the powers-that-be are unable to detect dissent. 


How else can we offer a fresh perspective in this perilous world?
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