Saturday, June 25, 2011

The natives and the interlopers

They ripped down cottages to make way for an old people’s home. They gutted trees and bulldozed the land. Any pigeons that for years had lived in the topmost branches alongside the magpies and starlings moved on. The rats of the skies.

Now they line the telegraph wires along the side street beside my house. I see them in the mornings, lined up like soldiers, one by one, beaks burrowed into their chests, heads lowered, asleep or dozing or doing whatever it is that birds do when they are not in flight or scavenging.

By mid morning the pigeons move on, from the telegraph wire to my neighbour’s gutter. Or her television aerial. Their midmorning cooing is like velvet against the background blast of traffic from the street in front.

Awake now the pigeons peer into my back yard. I can see them edging closer. By lunchtime, they are ready for another rest. The gum tree in my backyard is forked. A runt of a tree, it should never have been allowed to sprout higher than a sapling, but it grew despite its crooked branches, like a misshaped tooth in an otherwise straight set of teeth, it grew at an angle, down and back into the soil where ants burrow to make nests.

Last summer the caterpillars hatched, yellow and white with orange tufts that flared along their backs. They stripped the gum of its leaves, stripped it of its strength, no flowers now, just half chewed leaves a resting board for the pigeons that line its bare branches in increasing numbers.

I tried once to count the pigeons, as if in counting them I could satisfy my belief that they have increased in number, that they have been breeding, that they have moved in from other places, maybe not only down the road but up the road as well where the bulldozers have moved in to make way for a new shopping centre, a new office complex.

The bulldozers have brought down more cottages since, ripped down more trees, taken over the homes of other birds.

I cannot hang out washing on the line any more, on any but the two outer lines on one side. It might seem a small thing to you, a trifle perhaps to find your washing smeared in the white brown sludge of bird poop, but for me it is a catastrophe.

I have lived in this house for many years. I have lived in this house, uninterrupted, and cared for my cats, my fish and birds. I have distributed birdseeds daily for the wattlebirds and sparrows, shooed away the greedy minor birds and kept my cats in at night.

By day I tell my cats to go after the birds. Go after them but discriminate. I tell my cats to discriminate between the natives and the interlopers. These pigeons must be culled. They have no place here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

An apology need not be an admission of guilt

Billie, the nurse at my mother's retirement village, rang last night full of apologies. She had been so busy that day, so preoccupied with the fact that the whole place was being re-carpeted, that she had accidentally given my mother her evening medication at lunch time.

It would make little to no difference, she said, except that by the time she had realised her mistake it was too late to give my mother the extra Lasix.
‘It might be that your mother’s weight goes up overnight,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t make mistakes like this, not usually.’

We have needed to keep my mother's fluid intake down to prevent any swelling in her legs, a side effect of her heart failure. We monitor her fluid intake by weighing her daily.

Billie told me that by law she was obliged to inform me of her mistake, though probably in the scheme of things, one Lasix dose difference would not matter at all. Still she was obliged to tell me.

I felt sorry for Billie, having to apologise so profusely over some small mistake. It might have mattered were the medication of greater import, but one missed Lasix dose is not a drama.

I will visit my mother at lunch time today and check her weight. If it goes up beyond the desired weight of 56 kilos then I shall give her an extra Lasix tablet and all should be well.

Why am I writing this? What brings it to mind? The business of making mistakes, of having to apologise, of having to eat crow, eat humble pie, prostrate oneself at another’s feet. All these images come to mind, when I think of Billie's need to apologise.

I once failed to give way to a man who was coming through a roundabout on my right and he tail gated me to the next set of lights and then pulled up behind me. I watched as he got out of his car, road rage written all over his face. He strode towards me.

I wound my window down to the half way mark and as he began to speak – ‘What do you think you were doing? – I apologised.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t see you.’ My words took the wind from him. I could tell he could not go anywhere with my effusive and heartfelt apology. I had been in the wrong. I knew it. I was sorry.

It was almost as if this man had expected me to answer back, to accuse him of wrong doing or to otherwise defend myself in some way.

When I did not, when I simply offered my apology instead, he went back to his car and the drama came to an end.

So, too, this drama will come to an end.

I urged Billie not to worry about it. These things happen, I said.

She, too, seemed surprised. Perhaps she has had to do battle with families who go berserk when she or another staff member makes a mistake.

There are some who like nothing more than to see someone else make a mistake so as to justify their outrage, and to give them cause to feel hard done by.

Usually an apology from the other person when something goes wrong is enough for me. It gets me over any hurt or rage I might feel pretty quickly.

On the other side, I’ve been quick to apologise in my life time, even for things that were not my responsibility.

But an apology need not be an admission of guilt.

I think of it as the sort of apology the previous Prime Minister of this country once made to our indigenous people, not an apology that said I’m sorry for what I have done wrong. Our Prime Minister was not even alive when our British ancestors breached these shores and began the dreadful process of disenfranchising Australia's native people and took their land from them. No, the apology was more one of regret.

I regret that you have suffered in this way. I am sorry to hear and to know that your ancestors were forced to experience such pain and suffering and today you bear the consequences.

Though an apology can have other meanings, too.

The joke in this household is that I will sometimes say the words, ‘I’m sorry about that’, as an expression meaning to ‘get over it’: there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so you will need to grin and bear it. A sort of ‘I’m sorry about that’ in place of I couldn’t care less. My apology, my pseudo-apology will be about all anyone can expect.

I do not remember the day when my excessive tendency towards apologising for things I did not do turned into this other form of apology, an apology that implies now ‘fuck off’ as my husband sometimes complains.

Perhaps the day came when I had had enough of cosseting others. I imagine it has to do with my writing life. The fact these days that I will put my writing ahead of most things, of many things, though not all things, and if anything gets in the way and must be dismissed I might be sorry about that, too, the inconvenience or pain it might cause usually those nearest and dearest to me. But that is as far as I will go.

I've been reading Bernard Schlink's Guilt about the Past and he has a differnt take on the politics of saying sorry: "No one can step in as a replacement for the victim to offer forgiveness; forgiveness granted by someone other than the victim is presumptuous.'

I'm inclined to agree with Schlink, but here we get into the muddy waters of apology and forgiveness. I dare not even go there.

Who's to forgive my mother's nurse here - me or my mother? I suppose it all comes down to who's been wronged and to what degree and how much damage is done.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Locked inside the past

And so the days move on. My mother has bounced back from the brink of death and although her heart continues to fade the medication has kicked in and seems to have given her a new lease on life for the time being at least.

I have a new rhythm now when I visit. First I make her a half cup of tea – half cup only as her fluids are restricted to at most a litre a day – and then I settle myself down on the floor near her feet, peel off the support tubing from her legs and massage in a thick paste of Sorbolene cream on both legs, one after the other.

My older sister was the first to undertake this ritual but since she has been away these past ten days the task has fallen to me. I find it strangely soothing.
‘You’d make a good nurse,’ my mother said yesterday as I dipped my fingers back into the white cream.
‘I’m not so sure of that,’ I said to her. ‘I’m not so patient.’ But it’s true I prefer to be doing things and somehow smoothing Sorbolene cream into my mother’s dried and thin skinned legs comforts me as much as it comforts her.

Again this reversal of mother and child, this sense that I might now do things for my mother that she once did for me, though I have little sense of my mother from those early days when she would have attended to my physical needs. Who does?

My memory of my mother is one of a gentle presence, a somewhat preoccupied presence, maybe a vague presence but someone I could love with all my being. It distressed me as a ten year old when my older brothers spoke harshly of our mother, when they called her names.
‘How can you talk about our mother like that?’ I said. I needed to preserve an image of my mother in those days as a beautiful woman, saintly in her manner.

In those days I did not object to saints, not as I do now. Today I am troubled by the notion of sainthood. It borders too much on the masochistic. Self denial can become perverse as much as it is necessary often times to put ourselves second to others, but not all the time, and not in that awful self effacing way as did some of the saints from my childhood memories.

When I was little the saints were the equivalent of movie stars. I followed their fortunes with the same vigour young people today might follow the fortunes of a celebrity. I attached the significance of each one of our saints’ name sakes to every one of my sisters and brothers and tried to draw links between the personalities of each sister and brother with the saint after whom they were each named.

My own patron saint was altruistic, a holy woman who performed countless works of mercy. Or so my mother tells me. We share names, my mother and I, with our patron saint, Queen Elisabeth of Hungary.

Elisabeth of Hungary loved the poor. Strange, to love the poor. I always hated being poor. I even hated the so-called poor. The little black boy on the desk at school with his red bow tie and metal tongue hanging out begging for a penny was a constant reminder of the miseries of being poor. Unlike other girls I never had a surplus penny to offer him and the starving poor in Biafra. Any surplus pennies I’d have kept for myself.

My mother says our patron saint was married to a tyrant. Not so strange that. My father was a tyrant and he married a good woman. He often said as much.

In my mother’s version of the story Saint Elisabeth went one day, as was her custom, to visit the poor with a basketful of food. She had taken bread, freshly baked from the palace kitchens (Elisabeth was a queen) and fruit, green apples, yellow pears, purple plums plucked from the palace orchards and vegetables from the gardens, broad beans, potatoes and squash. A riot of colour and a cornucopia of smells, neatly tucked inside her huge basket and covered with a heavy, lattice cloth, normally used by the cook for cleaning and mopping up spills.

The poor family, a widow and her four small children, urchins in rags, were huddled together around an open fire in the centre of the thatched cottage when Elisabeth made her entrance. Before she had a chance to make her offering, horses hooves could be heard in the background and moments later Elisabeth’s husband, the king, the tyrant, the wretch swooped in through the door and ripped off the cover. He had forbidden her to give to the poor and was about to lambaste Elisabeth her generous folly when he was stopped in his tracks. Roses, blood red, blush pink and sun yellow, spilled out across the dusty floor, their perfume overtaking the sooty fumes of the fire. Elisabeth had been spared her husband’s rage. He now was the one humiliated and she vindicated through the intervention of God’s miracle. Elisabeth’s sainthood was guaranteed, the roses a clear sign of her beatitude.

My namesake’s story offers a message on how I must behave and whom I must marry. Alternatively, I suspect I might fare better not marrying at all. Instead I might become a nun and forego the tyranny of such a husband, believing, as I do, I have no hope of such miracles.

I met the writer MJ Hyland once in the days when I was trying to scratch out a complete memoir of my life up until I was eighteen years of age. She had read and edited some of my earlier chapters. We met in a café in Carlton in the days when MJ Hyland went by the name of Maria and when she still worked as a lawyer for Clayton Utz.

She was generous with her time, though I paid her for it, and her fees were not slight. It mattered not. I had met her in a CAE workshop on fiction writing and I enjoyed the way she taught and the way she thought.

Maria suggested then that I play around with the saints’ names as they attached to each of my sisters and brothers. In her mind’s eye she could see each of us in bed and above our beds a framed portrait of our respective saints.

I do not have a fiction writer’s imagination, at least I do not have Maria Hyland’s imagination. At first in my imagination I saw a row of children in beds lined up side by side, like sardines in a can, one sardine can after the other, but that was not how it was, nor is it the way I want to see us.

Still the idea has stayed with me, and it becomes problematic. To identify the names of the saints after whom each of my siblings was named is to identify my siblings by name and I am wary of such an undertaking, as if I presume too much in speaking their names out loud. It is as much as I feel safe to do in identifying them as an older sister, a younger sister, an older brother, a young brothers.

In this way I can only identify my siblings in chronological order relative to me. I do not identify them as ‘real’ people living in the world because I do not have the right. They are real people and yet in my writing they become more like fictional characters locked inside the past.

When I was little my father took photos of each one of us, separate portrait shots which he developed within a tiny dark room that was once the pantry in our old Camberwell kitchen. He developed the photographs first as tiny proof shots which he then laid out in the bath room and spread against the bath wall to dry. From these miniature shots my father made decisions about which photos he might develop to normal photo sized dimensions.

The sheets of proof shots he then discarded as useless, but I retrieved them from the rubbish pile. I took these tiny images of me, my sisters and brothers and cut them into miniature squares and then lined them up in age from oldest to youngest in my homemade photograph album. I have the images still.

My siblings mattered so much to me then. They matter to me now, but in a different way. We have grown distant. Our lives have diverged. We have produced families of our own and live far apart, but my memories of their significance remains. They were once my best friends however much we fought. They remain so today in my mind like pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is my life, as I am perhaps a single piece in the jig saw puzzle of their lives.

We each take up only a small space in each others lives and yet if one or other of the pieces goes missing the whole thing is incomplete, like a hole in an otherwise full set of teeth.

Our parents frame us and soon that frame will be gone completely and the individual pieces of the puzzle will be less well held but hopefully they will stay together even in the absence of the parental frame. Hopefully my mother’s soon and inevitable death will not cause the whole jigsaw puzzle to fall apart.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Broken Teeth

When I run my tongue along the top of my teeth I find jagged edges. If I push down hard, bits crumble away. I try not to smile or laugh in front of other people. Whenever I speak I take my hand to my face and cover my mouth. I rest the tip of my fingers on my top lip so no one can see the yellow-brown incisors or the black line that runs down the centre of my front tooth.

My sister has a gold tooth in front, half her front tooth, shiny gold. She does not put her hand to her mouth. Her teeth are in good order, even with the gold. The gold is a sign of good repair. She does as she is told. She goes to the dentist. But I keep my pain a secret.
I know when the ache is coming, when the raw nerve pulses underneath the flaky layer of tooth, all that is left of my big back munching teeth. I smear on a glob of ice-cold toothpaste, minty fresh, as a way of killing the pain.

At night, I cover my head with my pillow. I roll from side to side. I roll my head over and over to block out the ache. I do not go to the dentist because the dentist will look into my mouth and he will say,
‘What have we here? You haven’t been cleaning your teeth, have you?’ And I will blush. The roots of my hair will tingle; a shiver will run down from my scalp to my armpits. They will itch and prickle. And I will want to shut my mouth fast, snap like a turtle, snap. Get your hands out of there, I will say. Do not touch me.
‘If he touches you scream,’ my sister says.

My father touches her. I know. I see him at night. He comes into our bedroom. We sleep in beds one beside the other. Up and down beds. Long brown beds. Good strong solid beds. There is a passageway that runs between them, a dark river of space, which my father fills in the night when he visits. The door opens and he pads in bare feet across the open river of floor.
I turn to face the wall. I squeeze my eyes shut. I am an aching tooth, the raw nerves exposed, waiting for my turn.

But he does not come to me. He goes to her. The rustle of blankets, the murmurs, the sighs. The soft in-breath, out-breath. The silence. And then he is gone. My sister snuffles in her bed. She cries silent tears.

My sister is the chosen one. My sister with her crooked teeth, her plump body and her mouse brown hair. She is the one he loves. More than me, he loves her. More than me he chooses her, and more than me she grows fat and full of him.