Sunday, October 20, 2013

A short history of toilets

When I was four and living in Greensborough my family’s toilet looked like an upright coffin in the back yard.  It had a hinged flap on the lower back wall of wooden palings which the dunny-man lifted weekly to drag out the pan.
I looked up through the flap one day and watched the stuff come out of my little sister’s bottom.  And she watched mine in turn.

In our next house in Camberwell our toilet was stuck outside at the back of the woodshed, alongside the briquettes shoot.  I collected discarded cigarette butts from my father’s ash tray and stole a pack of matches from the kitchen mantel near the stove.  I learned to light the scrap of cigarette left above the butt and used the lit stump as a soldering iron.  I pressed it lightly onto the toilet paper to form the letters of my initials.  The edge of my ES had a tiny frilled border in copper brown.

In our next house in Cheltenham, an AV Jennings special on the Farm Road estate, we had two toilets, one inside and one out.  My mother brought outdated Readers Digests from the old people's home where she worked along with the cast offs from dead people, things she thought might one day prove useful.  Old spectacles or empty spectacle cases, faded pink nightgowns, matinee jackets, and hair rollers that had lost their pins. 

My mother brought home leather belts for my brothers and father and sometimes the combs and hairbrushes that had moved through and across old peoples’ heads of hair in a way that made me cringe.  My mother had no self respect when it came to freebies.
I refused to touch anything but the Digests.  I took them outside with me into the toilet above the back veranda and read about life in America.  I looked always for the salacious, which I usually found in the movie star section.  To this end I also collected my father’s discarded Truth newspapers for the thrill of naked bodies.

When I was in primary school, a Catholic school policed by nuns, I took it into my mind that the nuns never needed to go to the toilets, nor did they eat.  Under their habits their bodies were like those of my dolls, rigid and unyielding with no holes for peeing or pooing and no digestive system at all.
The memory of potties – those enlarged cup like containers which we kept under our beds to spare us the need for travel outside in the middle of the night – stays with me, not so much for their beauty, as for the stench they left in the bedroom when we woke and the dangers of spillage en route to the outside toilet where we emptied them each morning.
It was hard to flush unwanted things away then.  They tended to hang around longer.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Who gets the bracelet?

I visited my mother last night as I do most weekend nights to a terrible stink.  She had used the toilet after dinner and something must have got inside her and died, for the smell in the room was acrid.
I held my breath to speak for the first fifteen minutes and then the smell faded and we were able to chat free of the stench.
My brother had been by a few days earlier and left photos of his new granddaughter with my mother.  They were large photos, which I had needed to ferret out from underneath a pile of books.
My mother had remembered when I asked her about the new baby but she could not find the photos without my help.  I thought I might help further by spreading the photos around her room in front of her on the pot plant stand so that she might be able to admire them.
But it seems she has lost interest in the births of grand children or should I say great grandchildren except as a number and a sign of her vast progeny and even then she cannot remember the numbers.

'I don't like the photos there,' she said.  'Put them away.' 

My mother took off her cardigan and unbuttoned the brooch that held the top button fast. ‘Who gave that to you?’  I asked.

'Your brother and his wife, your brother the one whose daughter just had a baby.'  My mother thought this was so but she could not be sure. 

The brooch reminded me then of my mother’s bracelet, the one I have long coveted and I drew courage when I dared to ask her if I might have that bracelet, ‘when you are gone’.

My mother looked puzzled.  She too loves this bracelet.  It was a gift to her after her mother had died.  It once belonged to a great aunt.  A gold bracelet with a golden guilder attached and dated 1912, with the image of Queen Beatrix, the then Dutch queen on one side.
‘Perhaps I can give it to you before I die,’ my mother said.

Yes, I wanted to say.  Why not now?  But my mother hesitated and something in her hesitation left me saying, ‘Perhaps it would cause trouble with the others.’

Then I saw in my mother’s eyes some irritation.

‘My stomach is not feeling right,’ she said.  ‘Just a bit uncomfortable.’ 
She needed to revisit the toilet.

We speculated later whether my mother might have the beginnings of gastro and if so I needed to tell the staff as a precaution.  My mother might need to be quarantined.  

She’d like that I thought.  No need to make the trip to the dining room which she resists these days.
Walking tires her out.  She prefers to stay in her room on her own reading her beloved books, watching TV or day dreaming. 

My mother grew sleepy and I left her to her thoughts. As I closed the door I heard her switch on her television.  Perhaps my mother resented me for reminding her of her death, of the idea that she soon might not be here.

And I resented her, too.  Even after I had asked her directly, she could not bear to give in to me.  Perhaps she had another in mind.  

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The word, 'no'.

At the river in the morning I took off my shoes and socks, brown school shoes and dirty socks and I plunged my feet into the water.  

Mud oozed between my toes, twigs scratched against my legs.  There was a light current, not enough to push me off balance but enough to make me want to stay close to the edge, close enough to be able to reach out to the thick tufts of grass that sprouted there.

I was on a mission.  I had taken my bike out that morning.  I had cut myself a sandwich, filled it with butter and jam, wrapped it in greaseproof paper and dropped it into the bike basket at the head of my bike.  

The bike basket signified my bike was different from my brother’s bikes.  Only girls had bike baskets.  Boys did not need baskets.  They carried their belongings in their pockets.

That Saturday morning I had decided I would ride to Sydney, an entire state away.  A bike ride to Sydney all the way non-stop.  I told no one.  No one need know.  And I took off with the energy of any self respecting ten year old, full of confidence that I would be there by late afternoon and back by nightfall.

Uphills were the worst.  Burke Road past the turn to Doncaster, a good run down to the Yarra River, and then I elected to stop.
I ate my sandwich and found a drink tap next to play equipment in a park, carved out of flat land near the river.  I was thirstier than I had imagined, and my legs had taken on that jelly like quality that comes out of too much exercise.  Even in a ten year old.
The sun was mid sky and I had learned enough from nature study classes to know that it would only get hotter, but in the shade of the gum trees and with a slight breeze skipping over the river I cooled down. 

My feet in the ooze and all I could imagine were dangerous creatures underneath, creatures that might drag me down if I stayed too long.  It took a huge effort to drag myself back onto the shore.

A cow in a nearby paddock looked up from chewing on grass.  Even the cow had an ominous look in her eye as if she were unhappy that I should be there.
That’s when I saw the man at the top of the hill, the man who stood looking down at my bike, sizing up the basket, as if he were looking for a rider and her belongings, as if he were looking for me.  

And what could a man alone on a hill top near a river want with the rider of a small girl’s bike, one he would know belonged to a girl  because it held a basket?

The man’s silhouette on top of the hill, a black shape against a blue sky left me with a feeling I had broken rules. 

There were no signs around that said not to trespass.  The river was free or so my brothers had told me, but this man reminded me of the word ‘no’. 

I have met many such ominous men in my lifetime, in reality and in dreams, silhouettes against the sky.