Saturday, August 25, 2012

Cross your fingers: a short story

The sound of the radio wakes me.  Saturday morning and the announcer calls out the details of the horses that will be running in the various race meetings of the day.

I turn over and his pillow is empty.  A typical Saturday.  I find my man in the kitchen, toast crumbs on his plate, the newspaper folded to a manageable size. He holds a red biro in his hand and with it circles the details of each horse and race to establish where he will put his money.  His preoccupation with the form guide borders on insult but I do not take offence.

I start the day by loading whites into the washing machine, whites and lights first, followed by the darks.  When the basket is full to overflowing I take the clothes out behind the apartment block and hang out as many as the line can hold.  I try to keep the excess washing to a minimum forcing clothes together as closely as possible and sharing pegs.  I know it will not speed up the process of drying but to me there is a certain satisfaction in a full washing line without a chink of light between the clothes.  Recently there has been an underwear thief in our neighbourhood.  I do not relish the thought of some stranger stealing my knickers, worn and un-sexy as they may be.  I will hang our underwear on the small clotheshorse that stands on the balcony of our apartment.

My man  comes out to say goodbye as I clip his shirts in order of colour to the washing line.  ‘Wish me luck,’ he says.  I wish him luck and any niggling feeling of dissatisfaction I tuck away inside the peg bag.  My man provides for me while I am a student and have very little money of my own.  If my man wins today we might go out to a flash restaurant and if he loses they may yet turn off our electricity next week because the bill is still unpaid and long overdue.  Ours is a tempestuous life but I tell myself I like that.  I thrive on the uncertainty.  Never a dull moment I think as I hang out the last of the white handkerchiefs.

The day goes by quickly enough, floors to mop, the toilet and sink to go over with Ajax.  I do not dust the surfaces in the bedroom as there is too little furniture in there beyond the bed to warrant it, but I dust everywhere else and in the kitchen I wipe down the bench tops and scrub the stove clean with a hard scrubbing brush.  I drag the vacuum cleaner from the bedroom to the lounge until my back aches with the effort.  Bend and straighten. This is good exercise I reason and the rewards are great.  Soon I will have a house that is spick and span, my man will come home, and we will be able to relax in the comfort of a clean home.  I cross my fingers and hope for a win.

My man has devised a system whereby he can maximise his returns.  He is ruthless.  He does not become emotionally involved with the horses. They generate an income that is all.  Twilight and I hear the clip of his heels in the stair well.  The door rattles open.  The look on his face tells all.  We do not say a word but crawl into bed for a coupling that offers comfort to both.  He for his day on the job and me for my domesticity.  Afterwards we will decide what to do for dinner. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

It makes me cold to look at you

I have a small nick on the tip of my finger which hurts whenever I press it down on the keys.  I helped one of my daughters to pack up the contents of her house the other night and made the wound worse.  The dry blackness of newspaper ink seeped into the cut as I wrapped up her drink glasses one after another and laid them out in a box.

I hope the glasses make the journey safely today.  I will help to unwrap them at the other end this afternoon, once the removalists have carried all the boxes from one suburb to the next.  My daughter is not moving far, at least not geographically but emotionally it’s a huge move, as moves tend to be. 

Another of my daughters took a look at my desk the other day, strewn as it is with papers and books.
‘It makes me giddy just to look at it.’

Her words resonate with my mother’s words.  When I was a child and refused to wear a jumper even on the coldest of days she said to me repeatedly as I remember ‘It makes me cold to look at you.’  I wondered then how my lack of clothing could so affect my mother as she pulled her thick cardigan around her shoulders and shivered.

 How easy it is for us to affect one another.  Even a glance, a scrunching of eyebrows a wrinkling of the forehead can say a thousand words and leave the person on the receiving end in paroxysms of despair.  That is when we know one another well. 

But even when we don’t know one another well, looks can still kill. 

A car pulled in front of me the other day.  I had not noticed the car there on my left in two thick lanes of traffic until it had pulled in front of me.  I held back to let the driver in.  I saw his window go down and his arm shoot out.  I had expected a wave of acknowledgement. 

‘Thanks,’ he might have gestured, but no.  He gave me the bird.  That’s the expression people use when someone points up their rude finger.  Their rude finger, their index. 

It did not shock me so much as puzzle me.  What had I done wrong?  Why had I offended him?  I assumed it was a him.  The arm looked like a his but it may have been a hers, her index finger, her offence. 

It matters little in the scheme of things.  It matters to me a little less than the way I felt on another day when I had pulled out in front of another car ahead and momentarily blocked the path of an on coming car – nothing dangerous, everything in slow motion –  at the junction in Camberwell, and the person driving the car coming towards me, which did not in fact need to slow down much before approaching my car, wound down his window – again it was a he   - and spat a great gob of whatever onto my wind screen. 

There’s something shocking about being spat at, however much I might have deserved a reprimand.  This one got under my skin such that I cannot forget. 

On another note, I’m getting cold feet on the Keiser training.  To think I’d need to do this exercise twice weekly for the next however many years puts me off. 

On the other hand, is it so bad? 
And on the other hand, it’s expensive.
On the other hand, how might I feel in the long run when I no longer need to carry around my burden of guilt for neglecting my crumbling bones?

At least I have managed to get a bandage onto my wounded index finger.  It no longer hurts to type. 

If only other wounds were always so easily healed.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Truby King babies

Now in her nineties, my mother tends to remember the events of her childhood as if they happened yesterday, while the events of yesterday, events even of five minutes ago, she forgets.  Things slip from her mind but not her childhood.  Her childhood is her greatest companion and comfort. 

My mother's family as she now remembers them.  

These days when I make my routine weekly visit to my mother in her retirement village room, she will tell me again and again how happy she is in this glorious room that overlooks a small walled garden filled with roses and in the centre an overflowing mulberry tree, and she will remind me of the pleasures of her childhood.  
‘I can’t get this song out of my head.  You’d know it.  Oh my papa.’  My mother shakes her head  as if to dislodge the tune and the words, but they will not shift.  All day long she has heard the music in her head. 
‘I loved that song,’ she says.  

I do not bother to ask for an explanation.  It is obvious.  My mother was her father’s favourite and he hers.  Her beloved father with whom she walked to church arm in arm.  Her beloved father, a school gymnasium instructor, a man of short but powerful physique, a man who disciplined his unruly sons, especially the second, the one below my mother, the one who was his mother’s favourite.  The other five children missed out, or so my aunt, my mother's only sister, maintains.  

By the time they arrived their parents were already worn out.  My mother, the oldest, considers this a nonsense. 

Long ago my mother told me about the influence of Frederic Truby King in her life.  Her first babies were Truby King babies whenever my father was around.  But in the middle times he was either away at work or off fighting in the war and she could mother as she saw fit.

My mother preferred the times when my father was away she told me because she was then left free to care for her babies, to follow their whims, to put them to bed when they were tired, to feed them when they were hungry, to hold them when they needed holding and not to follow the rigid dictates of Truby King as interpreted by my father. 

As a follower of Truby King my father insisted on discipline.  Four hourly feeds.  The baby was to be held only for feeding and changing of nappy then back to bed for the next four hours with no interference from mother. 

They might cry, these Truby King babies, but they soon learned it was pointless.  Their cries would go unheard.

My mother talks about this time now as an aberration.  She thinks it stopped when there were more babies because it was all too hard for my father to police.  I was therefore not a Truby King baby nor the one below me, nor any of my mother’s other babies born in Australia.  

Only the first three missed out. 

I've read up on Truby King.  His adopted daughter Margaret wrote a biography on her father whom she adored.  He was born and lived at the same time as Freud, and although also a psychiatrist by training, he took an interest not in the psyche but in the body and in preventative  health care.

He trained a troop of mothercraft nurses to deal with what he considered to be 'over-feeding' but the notion of systematized four hourly feeding came from a Dr Thomas Bull in 1850.  Truby King pushed it further until people like Dr Spock and Donald Winnicott turned the tide and helped people to realise the importance of feeding as an emotional experience that cannot be systematised and deserves respect and encouragement.

It turns out that Truby king had wanted his mothercraft nurses to become friendly advisors to the mothers in their care but instead these nurses tyrannised the mothers and insisted on order and rule bound behaviour in much the way my father thumped the book of rules at my mother.  

My mother then lost her confidence and her babies suffered.  

But who am I to judge the past?  I can only speculate and wonder.  

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Your bones will start to crumble

In my sixteenth year of life, for reasons too long and detailed to list here, I spent the best part of that year in boarding school. 

During that time I lost track of my body.  The only time I saw it was at night in the dim light of the Immaculate Conception dormitory when I slipped out of my blouse and tunic into my pyjamas.  It was too cold to linger long.  We did not have mirrors except in the downstairs bathroom and once or twice a week I might catch sight of my face when I washed my hair in the sink, but otherwise I forgot the rest of my body from the neck down.  

It was easy to hide within the uniform over which I wore a baggy gingham pinafore.  In such capacious clothes it was easy to grow, and grow I did into a much bigger person than I had been when I first started at boarding school.  

Before then my brothers had called me skinny Lissie, but in my adolescence, reinforced by my year at boarding school, all this changed. 

During one of the holiday breaks my older sister took me to shop for new clothes.
‘You’re bigger than me,’ she said when I tried on trousers behind a curtained cubicle in Myers.  ‘You’ll have to watch out.’ 

Back at school I could not watch out.  The lure of the comfort food, hot buttered bread rolls for breakfast drizzled with honey, and buns at after noon tea united with vast mugs of hot chocolate.

A tiny photo of the boarders.  I'm the long haired one, standing at the extreme right in the middle row.  Our bodies are all well hidden behind our dressing gowns.  

When I left school I took to trying to shift my boarding school bulk with diets and exercise.  I devised my own exercise regime and tried hard to stick to it but it seemed a cruel way to start each day and worse still if I left it till the end of the day. The thought of the exercise ahead of me took away any pleasure a day might once have held.

In time I gave up all stereotyped exercise preferring to use my body for purposeful actions, the sort that make up a life, walking, housework, sex. 

I have since enjoyed a life that is exercise free until recently when a friend sent me notice of a new form of exercise called Keiser training. Two half hour sessions a week are all a person needs to begin to develop stronger muscles.

‘If you don’t get some exercise,’ my daughters warn me, ‘your bones will start to crumble.’

And so for the past two weeks I have visited a physiotherapist at the Keiser training centre closest to my home and begun to acquaint myself with a series of machines designed to give me back my strength.

The Keiser training place looks like a space laboratory, white walls, clean wooden floors and a series of machines each erected differently to take a person through a series of manoeuvres designed to offer resistance in the form of increasing weights pitched against particular muscles and movement.

My neck is weak, the physiotherapist tells me, perhaps from sitting for hours hunched over a desk; but over all my agility is fine.  So far the exercise seems painless but she reminds me, we are still on relatively light weights.

I do this exercise now because it is allegedly good for me.  I do it to get my daughters off my back.  I do it because I am fearful that my bones might crumble if I do not offer some resistance to the process of aging, but it will take some perseverance and my track record is not good.  

I wonder whether I am alone in this.  All my life I’ve been dogged by a sense of never being able to catch up with myself. 

It once took the form of a thought, a thought I had when I was in grade six: if only I was now back in grade two I would be able to do grade two again and so much better.

When I was in my final year at school the same thought: if only I were just now beginning high school, with all the knowledge I have gained since, I’d be able to do it so much better. 

And now more than half way through my life the same thought again: if only I were back at university now I would be able to do it all so much better, and maybe in another twenty years time I will wish I could go back in time and have my last go again. 

Will I think the same about Keiser training in twenty years time?  If only I could do it again, I’d do it so much better, but in twenty years time it might be too late.