Sunday, February 28, 2010

A childhood fantasy

We take the yellow bus to Camberwell. It smells of shoe polish. It smells of leather. I sit beside my mother near the front. Today there are only the two of us, my mother and me and we are taking the bus to Camberwell to shop.

I am angry with my mother. I want to complain about her plans to buy my sister pantyhose. I am older than my sister and I am still in socks. Why should she have stockings before me? But I do not want stockings. They are too adult.

My mother is humming. She must be nervous. The bus turns the corners too fast and I slide across the seat right up against my mother. Her body is hard and soft all at the same time.

An ambulance screeches past. Its siren splits the air. My mother hums on as though she has not heard it. I watch the driver’s neck. It has uneven black stubbly bits that run down and hide under his collar. The bus driver has fat stubby fingers that work the gears whenever we slow down to stop. My mother is looking ahead, still humming. Her nose juts out hooked. She is proud of it. Aquiline she says, like an eagle. A sign of aristocracy.

My mother is proud but she sits hunched over in her old green coat with her handbag on her lap. She does not wear pantyhose. She wears stockings held up with her girdle. The girdle is pink, skin coloured. She wears it to hold in her stomach muscles.

My mother is fat and frumpy and I am pleased about this. I would not want a mother who looked young and was pretty. Mothers should look like mothers. She fiddles in her handbag for her compact. It opens with a puff of powder; sweet and tacky to smell, like Lux Soap. My mother dabs the powder on her nose. She does not like her nose to shine. She squints into the compact’s tiny mirror and smears on a line of lipstick. Glossy red.

My mother was beautiful once. We have a photograph. In it she looks like a movie star. She gazes out from the photo with movie star eyes and a wistful look. Performing for the camera.

The top of the bus brushes against the branches of street trees as we turn corners. At Stanhope Street it stops for an old man who fumbles in his pocket for change and nearly falls over when the bus starts up again.
‘Pull the cord,’ my mother says. ‘We mustn’t miss our stop.’
I am taller than my mother. The cord like a skipping rope is taut till I pull on it. A loud buzz and the driver slows down. We walk towards the shops along an alleyway that leads to the railway station.

My father will kill us all. The thought pops into my mind and I want to push it away but it will not go away. He will kill us all one by one. He will start with my mother move onto my sister and then it will be my turn. He will work through the girls and then start on the boys. I have not yet worked out how he will do it, but he will. A train rattles through the cutting nearby.


steven said...

elisabeth - this is rich, captivating, and then disturbing. close to home. the details of your senses are so good and so very real. your memory is so clear. i want to know how you managed this - even as a "fantasy" - in terms of yourself as a person. steven

Elisabeth said...

Steven, this piece is my memory of a fantasy.

Needless to say, it's based on autobiographical events but the details come from both memory and imagination. I have such clear pictures in my mind.

It's my best effort at describing the way things 'felt' to me. I call this either 'narrative non-fiction' or 'autobiographical fiction'.

Does it matter? It just happens. For me it's part of the joy of writing - plunging into the unknown and seeing what comes up for me.

I think you do similar things in your writing, though your focus tends to be on the here and now, and on images, though it seems not always.

Thanks for your interest, Steven

Lisa said...

I loved your description of your beautiful mom. They were beautiful, people of the time. I believe that kind of beauty is gone.

Manon said...

I agree that the description of your mom is quite beautiful. I must admit that the last paragraph about your dad scared me.

Anthony Duce said...

I enjoy how you describe yourself and how you viewed the world at the time. I feel like I am in your head living the experience with you.
Liked the description of you mom and her beauty a lot. I am intrigued by what it must be like to live with someone you know is going to eventually hurt you. It must have been horrible.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you see some beauty there, Ocean Girl. I'm not quite sure I saw it or see it that way, but still it is based on a memory. Thanks.

And yes, Manon. I'm glad that you resonate with the fantasy that at the time in my memory popped into my narrator's mind.

Eryl said...

This is great, I really wanted more. Want more. But that's because I'm greedy, not because it doesn't feel complete. You conjure a sense of bleakness glossed over that makes me fear for the young narrator.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Eryl. There's more but given people's proclivities for short text, I'm looking for ways of posting my writing in dribs and drabs.

I value your appreciation a great deal, given the quality of your writing.

Mike McLaren said...

Real or imagined, it's a wonderful sketch of your mother. And I wonder... what did you buy at the shops to portend so much trouble with your father? Must have been wonderful stuff.

isabelle said...

this short text is amazing!!!!
your relation to your mother as a teen at this precise moment, all the details around....
And final stunning paragraph...
Master Piece!

A Cuban In London said...

The power of your writing is such that you had me giggling in one sentence (mothers should look like mothers) and almost in tears the next. Your father's violence. This is writing of exceptional qualities. I know I am being biased and fellow male posters will probably disagree strongly with me but I find this type of writing more prevalent amongst women than men. At a personal level it reaches a deep part of me more than the number of people on the street or whether Mrs Fanshawe had a parrot and words it said. Your post was so short and powerful that I have not got any words with which to describe it. All I can say is that maybe three years ago and provided you were in London I would have invited you to the special screening I organised of 'Until the Violence Stops'. It was a sellout with five women from different walks of life as panellists and me as the host.

Many thanks for this post and for your comments on mine.

Greetings from London.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Anthony. I'm fascinated by the different things that people pick up from this vignette. For you, this mother's beauty and the idea perhaps that she would hurt me. I can't say she did, but she failed to protect us and yet with the benefit of hindsight I can see some of the reasons why. I'm not sure I'd do a much better job myself in the circumstances, but still the story begs to be told.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Mike. As I wrote earlier to Anthony, it intrigues me that people pick up on different things. I called this piece 'a childhood fantasy' not for the piece in its entirety but because of the 'fantasy' that my father would kill us.

There are complex reasons for this and they go well beyond our shopping together.

Thanks again, Elisabelle. I enjoy trying to recreate powerful moments in words, just as you do with your wonderful photographs.

Mim said...

The mother is so close and yet so distant, incapable of fighting this father, of stopping him. She seems to have lost her power along with her looks. The irony of her eagle nose--the beak without strength, made impotent with powder. She does not have talons.

A tactile description.

Ces Adorio said...

OMG! Elisabeth. What a memory. Oh gee though. I never thought any of my parents killing us but I had thoughts about people coming in to my house and I had superpowers and I got rid of them without making a mess of the house. The things we thought about when we were kids!

* said...

This piece has voice! I enjoyed reading and and would read a novel of it, if I could. Where are you published?

Dave King said...

Really delightful description. I thought I saw your mum and would recognise her if I met her. (I didn't recognise Camberwell, though - I must ahve forgotten it.) A beautiful post.

Ces Adorio said...

Elisabeth what a marvelous writer you are. I am always intrigued. You draw me in like a child in a candy store. Unlike the Giovanni Boccaccio book The Decamoeron which I want to reread again having forgotten all of it since I was a teenager. It's nice to pick up an old book, forgotten but not forsaken.

As for you, I have one thing to say. You grew up to be a strong woman, but your father remains a powerful influence. I remember reading about the ruler. I know you had a specific name for the tool but I remember where I was and what I was doing when I read it. I was having my annual mammogram and I was in the waiting room. I was reading you!

Jim Murdoch said...

What struck me about this piece was the fact that the father comes out of nowhere, like an attack. You lull us into a false sense of security by descriptions of feminine things, girls on the cusp of womanhood and a mother no longer beautiful and yet still vain enough to worry about whether her nose shines in public. And then suddenly, from the back of the narrator’s mind comes the dad. At first I thought it was just an expression. My mum would say, “Your dad’ll kill us if we’re late,” or something like that so I was a little surprised to find that the girl is thinking that he father might literally do away with his family.

The final sentence is a touch of brilliance. A visual shudder.

Kass said...

The nervousness, the ambulance, the bus driver's stubbly bits and then......MURDER! What can I say? This is jolting and rich and thoughtful and I keep re-reading it. I love that you love the plumpness of real mothers.

This is just a wonderfully bizarrely rich post.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Loved the "sound" the branches made on top of the bus, remember it well on my own.
Catched also my interest, that there was a string to be pulled, in order to make the bus stop, somehow felt the "weight" of that.
Together with its end, its quiet haunting, in the good sense.
Please have a nice Wednesday.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Mim. you seem to have perceived the mother - my mother - my narrator's mother - as in some ways I experienced her then, an impotent though paradoxically potent force.

Aren't most parents perceived this way to some extent when we're children?

Well Ces, my fantasy of my father's murderousness was based on his behaviour to some extent, though I suspect all children exaggerate their parents in some ways, simply through the tendency to be ego centric. Thanks for your thoughts. your fantasies are pretty amazing too. Have you written about them?

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Terresa. Most of my fictional publications are in literary magazines and the like here in Australia. In recent years I've focused on non fiction and most often I weave the theoretical with the creative.

I've written a few essays and stories in Island, for a recent one see:

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Dave. I spent the years between five and fourteen in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. No doubt it has it's counterpart in England. Many of the suburbs in Australia have been named after English locations.
You never know, you might recognise my mum if you met her, then, though perhaps not now.

Thanks again, Ces. Fancy associating reading about my father with having your mammogram. There are layers of meaning there that I could only tel you face to face. Things are not always as they seem. As an artist you see below the layers perhaps sometimes without even realizing it.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Jim. You were meant to shudder, as I shudder even now at certain memories. How else to capture the horror of a moment?

Kass, it's hard for me to represent the tapestry of my writing and life experience on my blog, as I imagine it is for most of us who try to explore our lives and art through this medium.

The past and present collide. The rich complexity of events collide and sometimes create new meanings.

I keep trying as best I can. Thanks for your thoughtful words, Kass. I value your comments.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

A captivating account of a moment in time with your mother. Of course, it is the thinking of the young girl that you were that is so riveting.