Category: Australia


He was the runt of the litter.   His mother was a beauty queen with many prizes to her credit.

She had not been an enthusiastic participant in her mating with a much older dog at a distant kennel.  Her resentment had grown during her pregnancy and her owners had watched her very carefully during the whelping.  It was feared that she might decide to devour her puppies.

The thought might have crossed her mind, but she chose to just glare balefully at any human who came into sight.  Humans had betrayed her.  She, a prizewinning pedigree Pekinese bitch, who could trace her ancestors back to intimate companions to emperors, some of whom had even been suckled by the aristocratic ladies of the Court, had been humiliated.

She had been taken away from her territory, dumped unceremoniously into a strange room, and before she had had time to adjust to her new surroundings, That Dog had invaded her space.  And her person.  She had tried to refuse, both haughtily and very firmly, but it was his territory, so she had had to submit.  She could have fought him, but she was too frightened.  And bewildered.  Why had her humans done this to her?

The smell of him had lingered, even after her next shampoo.  It came back in waves.  Even now, after the birth of her puppies, she could still smell him.  Then there was The Runt.

He was much smaller than the others and she just knew that there was something wrong with him.  It wasn’t his size, nor the fact that his nose jutted out slightly – a hideous fault, which certainly didn’t come from her side.  (There was obviously bad blood in That Dog.)  It was something more subtle.  She couldn’t quite put her paw on it, but she knew that he shouldn’t be encouraged to live.

She tried to prevent him suckling.  Somehow, he managed to sneak to a teat while, exhausted, she was taking a well-earned nap.

After the puppies’ eyes had opened, humans started to visit the new mother.  They ooh-ed and ah-ed over the puppies – and ignored her completely.

Before her maternity, she had been the kennel’s star attraction.  Torn between indignation at being ignored and maternal pride, she decided that it was time to examine The Runt’s case more closely.

Apart from The Nose, everything about him was perfect show material.  His legs were beautifully bowed, his eyes bulged as they should, his socks were just the right height, his rusty markings were beautiful, his tail curled as it ought.  He was small of course, but the unavoidable defect was indubitably those few millimetres of Nose.  The perfect Pekinese nose is flat against the face, and this one wasn’t.

However, it wasn’t his physical appearance that repelled her.  It was something else.  A feeling.  He had to go.

She tried suffocation.  Pekinese jaws open to a surprising (and often very frightening) size.  She wrapped them around the runt’s neck and held her mouth shut.  She didn’t try to bite.  She just waited.  A kennel maid saw her and, with much shrieking, alerted the owners.  The Runt was removed from her jaws and she was accused of trying to bite off his head.  Which was quite untrue.  The time for eating him would have been at his birth.  It was much too late now.

She made a second attempt at suffocation a few days later, but was again thwarted.  After that, she was constantly watched, so she gave up trying to rid the world of her defective offspring.

***

My parents visited the kennel and were introduced to the now weaned Runt.  He had a very aristocratic pedigree name, but Daddy christened him Cheng with an acute accent on the “e”.  I don’t know why.  Was he trying to make the name sound French?  If so, why?  I don’t even know why he chose a Pekinese.  The only possible reason which comes to mind is that our next-door neighbours had a Pekinese.  An affable gentleman whose bulging eyes became completely blind and were further damaged by the poor old thing constantly running into things while roaring around the yard.  He was eventually helped to a merciful end.  However, when Cheng arrived home, our canine neighbour could still see and was very interested in the puppy next-door.

***

Cheng had been in our home for a few days and was poking his head into every cupboard he could reach, as soon as it was opened.  Mummy was kneeling in front of the open saucepan cupboard and Cheng’s head was inside.  Mummy sneezed.  The sound echoed through the cupboard and Cheng screeched, shot across the room, and cowered up against the wall, near the back door.  He was in the corner sitting on his backside with his front paws pawing the air.  Later, Mummy taught him to “clap hands” while in this position – a variation on this first pawing of the air.   However, he avoided going near the open saucepan cupboard again.

***

Cheng once appeared in a play.  I don’t remember the name of it, but the lady who carried him onstage (he was playing her lap-dog) was Miss Lorna Taylor.  I called her Auntie Lorna because, in our family, children did not address adults by their first names.  It was disrespectful.  Close family friends were given the honorary title of “aunt” or “uncle”.  Everyone else was Mr, Mrs or Miss.  We didn’t know any Lords, Ladies or knights at the time.

Cheng was usually taken home after his last scene in the play.  However, on the last night, he was allowed to take his curtain call with the rest of the cast.  Auntie Lorna carried him onstage and the audience applauded – and so did Cheng.  He sat up in Auntie Lorna’s arms and “clapped hands” with all his might.  The audience went wild.  It was his greatest moment.  He quite stole the curtain call from the other actors.

***

Cheng was my first dog and I loved him.  After a few years, he started biting anyone who entered his yard, including me.  He would come roaring down from the other end and fasten his teeth onto my calf.  I would drag him along with me as I walked.  Mummy was worried about it but, after he bit my face, his days with us were numbered.

For some time, he had been refusing to allow anyone to groom him and his long fur was matted.  We had bite marks on our hands from our attempts to even cut out some of the knots.

One day, I came home from school to find my mother in tears.  She had called the R.S.P.C.A. to take him away.  I thought that I would never forgive her.

She told me that, when the people had come for him, he had sat up and “clapped hands” for them.  The lady had said to Mummy, “How can you bear to part with him?”  Mummy had explained about the biting and refusal of grooming and recommended that they find a home for him without children.

***

It has been suggested that he might have suffered brain damage when his mother was trying to destroy him.  I now think that he could have been missing performing and was depressive.

***

I don’t know where he went.  I never saw him again.

I remember there being a photo of him onstage during his curtain call.  The photo was taken from the wings.  However, I haven’t been able to find it, and I don’t remember any other photos of him.

***

Heather, aged 15, with her 13 year old sister.

Auntie Heather was born on 6 October 1918.  Her mother and father, my grandparents, had been courting for six years when they finally married on 5 January 1918.  This was because Pa (short for Papa, later for Grandpa) refused to marry while the other men were away at war.

Grandma had very nearly stood him up on their first “appointment” as she called their dates.  She had confided to a work colleague that she wasn’t really attracted to him and thought that she wouldn’t go.  Her colleague had encouraged her to meet him, saying “You never know, you might like him.”  Much later, she had confessed this hesitation to her husband, who had replied, “I knew where you lived!”

During the First World War, Australia’s soldiers were all volunteers.  Pa had volunteered but, although he passed muster on height and chest measurement, his request had been refused.  He wouldn’t say why.  Later, when the War dragged on and thousands of men were being killed or wounded, height and chest measurements were lowered and Pa thought that he might be accepted this time.  He was refused for the second time.  Grandma used to say that men who had volunteered and been refused should have been given some sort of badge to wear so that they didn’t receive dirty looks from passers-by in the street.  Pa played sport and looked like a strapping young man who just didn’t want to go to war.  After his death, Grandma found his application papers with CARDIAC written across them in red.

Heather at the beach.

So Grandma, who, at the age of sixteen had refused her first offer of marriage, finally had to wait until she was twenty-nine before being able to tie the knot.  Pa was thirty-five.

Their first child was born nine months and one day after the wedding, at home with the assistance of a midwife.  Grandma’s pregnancy had been a bit rough and so had the birth, but mother and daughter were doing well, even if both were very tired after the ordeal.  Grandma managed to say to the midwife, “I just saved my good name!”  To which the midwife snapped, “You would have saved your good name if she had been born three weeks ago!”

While Grandma was still weak, one of her husband’s aunts paid her a visit and enquired about the baby’s name.  Grandma replied that she was to be christened “Brenda”.  The aunt exclaimed, “Brenda!  Brenda!  Brindle!  Brindle cow!  If you call her Brenda, I’ll call her ‘Cowie'”  So Grandma, in her weakened state, agreed to change the name, and my aunt was named Heather Catherine.  Relatives sent white heather to her from Scotland the Brave.

Heather with her future husband.

When Grandma had recovered sufficiently to go for a walk with her baby in the perambulator (later shortened to “pram”) “an old biddy up the street” (Grandma’s words)  admired the little one, then proceeded to say insinuatingly, “My daughter had her baby one year after her wedding!”  Grandma rose to her full height of five feet two inches and replied icily, “Well, my daughter was born nine months and one day after my wedding!”  Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

The little girl had her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes but her features were those of her father.  Later, a dark-haired hazel-green eyed sister came along and Pa, who would have loved to have fathered a son, refused to allow Grandma to risk her life a third time to try to have a boy.

Heather with her father and mother on her wedding day.

The girls grew up in a two-bedroom brick house, with a dog and an enormous aviary in the backyard.  The birds were Pa’s but the dog was everyone’s.  She was a black Pomeranian who loved to taunt the biggest dogs she could find on her walks, then, when chased by them, leap into Grandma’s arms and let her deal with them.  Grandma was not amused by this.  She wasn’t afraid of dogs, but an angry German Shepherd, still being insulted by the black curly bundle in her arms, was not a reassuring encounter.

The girls shared a bedroom and this arrangement displayed its limitations when the younger of the two went into a depression (known as a nervous breakdown then) and piled all the blame for her state on her sister Heather, who was twenty years old at the time.  Not only did young Heather have to assume the burden of her mentally ill sister at this time, the antagonism lasted for the rest of their lives.  Her sister continued to systematically blame her for everything that had gone wrong with her life and eventually stopped talking to her.  At the same time she did everything that she could to try to turn the rest of the family against her.  Fortunately, not always successfully.  Auntie Heather maintained a dignified silence through it all.

The family (left to right) Heather’s sister (my mother), me at 14, Grandma, Heather’s husband, her daughter at 10, and Heather.

Despite these problems, which hadn’t yet reached complete maturity when I was born, Auntie Heather became one of my godmothers.  She was consulted, including by her sister, my mother, for questions concerning the correct way to dress for a particular event.  The sisters even collaborated as a medical first-aid team during the Second World War.  Auntie Heather always knew what the text-book said to do and my mother always knew how to do it.  Things didn’t go as well when they tried to reverse the roles.  The whole family was on first-aid alert duty on the night that the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour.  The siren was at the end of the street, a few houses away.  On the bus, on their way to work the next morning, the girls thought that people were joking when they heard them talking about the attack and the siren going off.  They had slept through the whole thing and could have been fined for it.

Same people, different places. We’re all a bit older.

Auntie Heather was the matriarch of the family.  She outlived her parents, her younger sister, her husband (a high-ranking Free Mason) and her only child, my cousin.  She died last Friday, 29 June, and will be cremated tomorrow, 4 July 2012, in Sydney.

She is survived by her four grandchildren and her son-in-law, but I am the only one left who knew her when she was a young woman.  Which is why I have written this.  All of the people in these photos, except for me, are now deceased.

“What animal does this come from?”

Teacher says that meat comes from animals and I’m testing the story.  Daddy’s mouth is full, so Mummy answers.

“Bull.”

Daddy swallows so fast he almost chokes.

“Bullock.  Not bull.  Bullock.”

There’s silence, while I finish my mouthful.  I’m not allowed to talk until my mouth’s empty.

“What’s a bullock?”

Mummy makes a weird little bow over the table, with a big smile on her face.  She wants Daddy to answer.

Mummy had set my hair with butterfly clips. I hated it, and Daddy insisted on taking my photo.

Daddy goes into one of his long speeches, while Mummy and I continue dinner.  Mummy’s having trouble with hers.  I think she’s trying not to laugh.  Why?

Daddy’s talking about bees and flowers and seeds.  Then he switches to birds and eggs.  It’s all very interesting of course, but so far, there’s nothing about bullocks.  I’ve eaten all my vegetables and have almost finished my meat.  Are we going to have ice-cream?

I must have missed a bit of Daddy’s speech because now he’s talking about puppies and kittens.  Mummy’s shoulders are shaking.  She takes a handkerchief out of her pocket and wipes her eyes.  She’s crying?  Have I done something wrong?

Daddy’s onto lambs and calves.  Mummy goes to the ice-chest and takes out the ice-cream.  Goody!  Ice-cream!

Daddy’s stopped talking and is trying to eat his now cold dinner.  He doesn’t like it.

It’s true that I didn’t hear absolutely every word he said, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention bullocks.  I wait until he pushes away his plate.  He seems to have finished with the animals.  Has he forgotten the question?  I decide to remind him.

“Yes, but what’s a bullock?”

Mummy dumps the ice-cream and rushes out of the room.  Is she sick?  She’s making funny noises down the hall.

I don’t remember what happened after that.

***

Some years later, when I am in my early teens, Mummy and I go to Sydney’s Royal Easter Show.  Farmers have come to the big city to show their animals and compete for prizes, and we are having trouble moving through the throng.  The crowd parts slightly and an enormous creature comes into view.

“Mummy, look at the size of that bull!”

A farmer in front of us turns his head.  Mummy, bright pink, mutters,

“It’s a bullock.”

I look from her to the grinning farmer and back again.

“Oh…  What’s a bullock?”

The farmer’s grin broadens.  Mummy, now deep purple, snarls in a low voice,

“I’ll tell you when we get home!”

I don’t think she did.

***

I’m going on three in this photo, which is a bit young for this post but it’s the only one I could find of the three of us together in the driveway – with Dad’s first car, a green Holden.

I open the front gate.  It moans.  Daddy puts oil on it sometimes and the noise changes, but it doesn’t go away.

The gate clangs as I shut it and start to climb the steep part of the driveway.  It’s easier if I pretend I’m a crab and go up sideways.

I look up as I reach the top.  Daddy’s home!  He’s at the bottom of the yard, in front of the garage.  It’s the first time he’s home before I arrive from kindergarten!

Mummy’s down there, too.  Is something wrong?

They turn to face me as I walk towards them.  No smiles.  Something’s wrong.

I stand in front of them and wait.  Mummy steps back slightly, with lowered eyes.  Daddy clears his throat.

“Did you throw milk over Owen Jessep?”

Did I what?…  Oops!  So I did…  That was ages ago!  It was morning recreation!  I’d forgotten all about it!  And it served him right, too!

I raise my chin and answer proudly,

“Yes!”

I wait for the next question, but Daddy goes into one of his long speeches:  It isn’t nice for little girls to throw milk on little boys…  and how lucky I am to have milk to drink when other little girls haven’t got any…  and how wasteful I am…  and it goes on…   and on…

The longer he talks, the angrier I get.  The  muscles in my face tighten.  Don’t listen!

I keep my head up, but my eyes look at the ground between Mummy and Daddy.  A blade of grass is growing in a concrete crack…  Something’s running towards it.  An ant?  Or a spider?  I think it’s an ant…  I’m thirsty…

Daddy pauses for breath and Mummy jumps in.

“Marilyn, what did Owen do to you?”

Well it’s about time!

“He spat in my face!”

Nasty little boy!

Mummy turns to Daddy.  Daddy’s just about to launch back into his lecture and his mouth’s open.  He shuts it, changes gear, and goes off in another direction.

Don’t know how old I am in this one but it looks about right for the post.

This time it’s all about how I’m not punishing Owen;  I’m punishing his mother, who has to wash his coat and pants, and how Daddy thinks that I should apologize to her for throwing milk over her precious little boy who spits in people’s faces!

How did he find out about it, anyway?

“Did Teacher ‘phone?”

Mummy, bright red, blurts out,

“No!  Owen couldn’t wait to rush here to tell me!  He must have run all the way!”

Daddy’s not pleased with this outburst.  He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell.  So can Mummy.

We go back to Mrs Jessep, Owen’s clothes and my apology.

I have doubts about it.  I ask hopefully,

“Is Mrs Jessep going to punish Owen for spitting in my face?”

I sense hesitation.

Daddy is certain that Mrs Jessep will take the appropriate action.

I look at Mummy.  Her eyebrows are raised and her lips are firmly pressed together.  She’s looking at the ground.  Mummy has doubts too.

Daddy’s back on Mrs Jessep’s washing and my apology.

It’s true it wasn’t her fault.  I suppose I’ll have to apologize.  Daddy’s going to nag until I do.  Bad luck he picked today to come home early!

“All right.”

Does he hear the lack of enthusiasm?  He starts off again about coats, washing and “poor Mrs Jessep”.

Mummy steers me back along the driveway to the six-foot paling fence near the laundry.  Daddy follows.

Mummy calls Mrs Jessep, who is in her laundry on the other side of the fence.

Mrs Jessep climbs onto an upturned wooden box and her head appears at the top of the fence.

Mummy tells her that I have something to say to her.  Daddy nudges me.  I take a deep breath.

“I’m very sorry, Mrs Jessep, that you have to wash Owen’s clothes because I threw milk on him when he spat in my face.”

There you are!  Perfect apology!  I didn’t say I was sorry for throwing the milk.  And I’ve told her he spat in my face.

Mummy’s proud of me, I can tell.

Daddy’s squirming a bit.

Well, I apologized, didn’t I?  That’s all he asked me to do!

Pa and me on Christmas Day. He had made the pram and Grandma had garnished it. I was nearly four. I’ve always loved this photo.

Auntie’s standing to the left of the doorway.  She’s crying.  Mummy’s on the right.  She’s not crying but her eyes are red.  Grandma slips between them to enter the room.  Mummy pulls me out of her way.

Except for Grandma, we’re all in the hall.  Pa’s in bed.  He’s making funny noises.

I want to see him.  I try to go in.  Mummy pulls me back.

“You can’t go in.”

“Why?”

“Pa’s sick.”

“I want to see him.”

“He’s unconscious…  Pa’s sleeping.  He’s sleeping very deeply.  You mustn’t disturb him.”

“I’ll be quiet.  I just want to see him.”

“No.  Now, be a good girl.  Go and read your book.”

***

A little while later – a few days?  a few weeks? – we’re all back again.  I want to see Pa but the bed’s empty.  It’s all made up.  The blue bedspread’s on it.

“Where’s Pa?”

Auntie bursts into tears.  Mummy explains,

“The angels came and took him away.”

“Why?”

“Because they wanted to take him to Heaven.”

I nod.  But I have doubts.  He didn’t say goodbye.  Pa wouldn’t have gone to Heaven without saying goodbye.  I test the story.

“Did they come in through the door or through the window?”

Auntie’s now making quiet sobbing noises.  Mummy doesn’t like it.

“Through the door.”

I nod again.  There’s something wrong with this story.  I test again.

“Did they fly?”

Mummy’s getting impatient.  But Auntie and Grandma are there so she won’t scream at me.

“No, they walked.”

“Did Pa walk too?”

“The angels carried him.”

“Why?”

Mummy starts crying too.  She wants me to go away.  I can feel it.  I try to help her,

“Did they carry Pa to Heaven to make him better?”

Mummy hesitates.  I knew there was something wrong with her story!  If Pa’s gone to Heaven, why is everyone crying?  He didn’t go to Heaven.  He’d have said goodbye to me first if he had.  What are they hiding?

“Where’s Pa?”

“I told you!  He’s in Heaven!”

She’s angry now.  She might start screaming.  I go before she does.

***

Me at four. The photographer did everything he could think of to make me smile, even stood on his head. I felt very uncomfortable. Mummy made my dress.

Many years later, I accept my husband’s marriage proposal partly because he reminds me in some way of Pa.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have Pa’s natural nobility and goodness.  After six and a half years and three children, he repudiates me.

***

Many, many years later, in 2003, I write a play called Wounds.  A woman talking to her elderly mother.  It is in English so I read it to my mother over the telephone.  She is in Australia and I am in France.  Fortunately, it is only a One-Act Play.  In it, I talk about my grandfather’s death, but also about him and me.

I wrote the play in a rush for the 3rd Onassis International Theatre Competition.  I made it autobiographical because I didn’t have time to cook up a plot.  It was not very easy for me to write in English, either.  I changed all the names of course, but it’s still my story, very thinly disguised.  I only had time for one act so it has an unfinished feeling to it.  It needs at least one more act, possibly two depending on what I do with it.  I’ll probably never finish it as I won’t be performing it now.  Pity.  It’s a good first act.

Here’s a bit of it:

                         […]

MOTHER – What were you saying when I nodded off?

MARION – Nothing much.  I was thinking about Grandpa’s death…  And how it affected the rest of my life.

MOTHER – You were only four.  Do you want that biscuit?

MARION – No thanks.  (Passes the plate)  I was only four, but he was the first man I ever loved.  Daddy was never there.  …  And when he was, I wasn’t allowed to disturb him.  Reading his newspaper was more important than me.

MOTHER – Yes, I know.

MARION – Grandpa talked to me as if I was an adult.  He explained the garden to me.  The insects and all that.  I didn’t understand it all of course, but I followed him around and crouched down when he did.  He weeded and talked.  And I watched and listened.

MOTHER – You still remember that?

MARION – Yes.  And I remember when he was ill.  He was asleep and he made a lot of noise breathing.  I wasn’t allowed into the bedroom.

MOTHER – He was unconscious.

MARION – Well, if he was unconscious, I don’t see how my presence would have disturbed him!  …  Auntie Helen was crying in the hall.

MOTHER – That’s just about all she did, too!  Mum and I did all the work!  Changing him, washing him and everything.  She occasionally carried a tray!  On condition it wasn’t too heavy.  And usually only when the doctor was there.

MARION – Then one day, the door was shut and you said that the angels had taken him.  And I couldn’t believe he’d gone without saying goodbye.

MOTHER – I had to open the door and show you the empty bed!

MARION – It was made.  It was as if he’d never been in it.  Gone without a trace.  I remember asking how the angels had come in:  through the door, or through the window?  You said, “through the door”.

MOTHER – Did I?  I don’t remember that.  …  They did, of course.

MARION – Pardon?

MOTHER – The angels.  …  Well, of course, they were really the gentlemen from the Funeral Parlour, but it’s best to stick to the truth with children.  …  Especially you.

MARION – And your idea of “sticking to the truth” was to tell me that the angels had come in through the door?

MOTHER – Yes.  …  Well, I suppose so.  I don’t remember.  But you were that sort of child, you know.

MARION  – What sort?

MOTHER –  The sort that, having been told that angels had visited the house, asks whether they’d come in through the door or through the window.

MARION – Well, I had to fill in the blanks!

MOTHER – What do you mean by “blanks”, dear?

MARION – The holes!  The enormous gulf between Grandpa breathing heavily in bed, ill, but very present, and a perfectly-made empty bed with a freshly ironed blue satin bedspread on it!

MOTHER – You remember that too!

MARION – Of course I do!  That bedspread was part of the shock!  …  I should have been allowed to go to the funeral.

MOTHER – Yes, I realize that, dear.  But in those days, children didn’t go to funerals.

MARION – I know.  …  I’ll go and do the washing-up.

                         […]

***

The opening speech in the play is from Marion, who says, “Some wounds never heal.  …  You think they have, then Life comes along and rips them open again.  You find yourself living the same things over and over.  …  The faces change, but basically, the situations are the same.”

I think that this is true until we decide to do something about it.  We can break the cycle and free ourselves, but it is not always easy.  I don’t think that I ever really managed to do it.

***

Autumn Thud

It is early Autumn in this part of the world and, in 2005, while staying with extended family in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, I started to write a poem in English.  In 2006, I submitted it to ArtsACT, as an entry for the 2006 David Campbell Poetry Prize for an unpublished poem by an ACT poet, where it sank into oblivion, possibly with a Winter Thud, as it was in June.  In December, I learned that there had been only thirty-eight entries in this category, which makes my result even worse.

In 2008, I dug it out and reduced it to sixteen lines, which greatly improved it, and it went off to the USA where it won a second prize, along with a great number of other people’s poems (there were over seventy second prizes, I think) but, as there were many thousands of entries, I thought that this result was not too bad.  Particularly as I had entered this competition many times in the past with no result.  Perhaps they were rewarding perseverance.

The poem was published in an anthology and I don’t think that I have written any poetry since, except perhaps a few haiku.  Poetry is meant to be read aloud and I have no-one to whom to read it.  In France, I had a captive audience several times a year and this gave me an incentive to write.  Here, in the Australian Capital Territory, I have no audience.  And the way things are looking, that is not likely to change any time soon.

So, to give Autumn Thud another airing, I’ve decided to post it here.  It’s Easter Sunday and you are all bound to be high on chocolate, so it might have more chance of pleasing someone today.

Autumn Thud

*

Autumn has fallen with a thud.

The temperature drop is ten degrees.

Cockatoos, magpies, pigeons, galahs

Risk short flights to cowering trees.

***

Waves of rain sputter and stop.

Brown leaves glisten on the ground.

A young magpie flutters down,

Holds out its wings, steps around.

***

Furious, the gale renews.

Rods of water hit the earth.

The magpie tumbles, flaps, screams,

Scuttles towards the tree of its birth.

***

Autumn has fallen with a thud.

It is windy and dark, cold and damp;

A time for my nest, feather quilt,

Cocoa, a book, and the fireside lamp.

(2008 version)

Taken to Pretoria where she claimed to have lived, Joey Vervey recognized this house which she said had been transformed into a hospital during the Boer War. She said that she had been inside it. She indicated the place of each medical service in the building.

These stories come, for the most part, from the Parapsychology Centre of the University of Rajastan, in Jaipur, India.  At the time that Guy Breton wrote this text, Doctor Banajee and his colleagues had, from the beginning of their research, investigated more than eighty similar cases.  These cases, of what is called extra-cerebral memory, were also studied by the American Professor Ian Stevenson, who was President of the Psychiatry and Neurology Department of the University of Virginia…

***

Why “extra-cerebral memory” and not “memory of a former life”?  Because the scientists who study these phenomena are extremely prudent.  They never speak of “reincarnation” or of “former life”.  They do not give any explanation either;  they content themselves, for the moment, with noting that the evoked memories (1) cannot be logically connected to the brain of the subject who claims to have them (since it is always a baby);  (2) are associated with the brain of a dead person.  That is all…  They do not join any considerations of a spiritual or occult order to their research.  If, one day, they have proof that it really is reincarnation, they will admit it quite simply because these are open-minded people without prior convictions…  For the moment, they content themselves with investigating with the greatest rigour as soon as a case is drawn to their attention, and publish the result of their work…

***

Investigations are easier in India.  Reincarnation being admitted there, children speak openly, without fear of seeming ridiculous, about the strange memories which seem to come from a previous life.  Things are different in other countries…

***

It is evident that a child who suddenly announces to his parents that he was a General during the War of Secession, would probably not be believed.  He would be accused of lying and, if he does it again, he would be punished, possibly even physically.  Which would close the door on any memories of previous lives…  But it seems that for some time now, we have been witnessing a change in mentalities.  Responding in an interview with Claudine Brelet in Question de, Professor Stevenson declared in 1979:

“It is certain that in the West, the door is often closed and the memories smothered by the parents.  But, for a few years now, I have been receiving a fair number of letters from parents (mostly mothers) which are almost carbon copies of each other, telling me:  ‘Dear Professor Stevenson, I would have liked to have heard about your research earlier.  My son is now thirteen.  When he was only three, he said that he had been an aviator and had crashed.  We answered:  “Don’t be silly!”  Now, I regret it, for I’ve forgotten nearly all the details, and so has he’.”

***

In 1979, Professor Stevenson had studied 1,623 cases, 813 of them coming from Asia (Birma, India), 241 from Europe (38 of them from France), the rest from the two Americas.

***

Among the 1,623 cases that he studied, Pr Stevenson found 300 children bearing marks or malformations from their previous lives, and out of these 300 children, 200 are able to supply precise information about them.

***

In nineteen cases, these declarations were confirmed.  Notably concerning a young Indian from British Columbia born with marks that looked like scars.  Pr Stevenson was able to obtain from a hospital the Autopsy Report indicating the number and the position of the wounds noted on the body of the defunct person of whom the young Indian claimed to be the reincarnation.  Number and position which corresponded exactly to the marks born by the child.

***

Joey Vervey also recognized this bell which was used to announce meals in the house above.

An English couple, Mrs Grant-Kelsey and her husband Doctor Kelsey, in Pangbourne, Berkshire, sixty kilometres from London, cure illnesses, or phobias, whose causes are in previous lives.  Their absolutely revolutionary therapy consists in placing their patient, through hypnosis, in contact with their “distant memory”.  And, as Professor Remy Chauvin wrote,

“when he is fully conscious of the inhibitions, hates or anger in his previous existences and he is delivered from them, the pathological troubles from which he is suffering in his present existence immediately disappear”.

Isola Pisani, who followed the work of Dr Kelsey and his wife, recounts one of these extraordinary cures in her work Mourir n’est pas mourir.

***

According to statistics which have been established both by the Parapsychology Centre in Rajastan and by Professor Stevenson, the interval between death and a “new birth” varies from several centuries to a few days.  There is even a repertoried case of instantaneous reincarnation.  However, Pr Stevenson noticed that in Asia, the interval between death and “rebirth” was only about four years, in most cases.  Why?  This is a mystery to be added to the other mysteries…

***

According to the statistics, children forget their memories of a former life around the age of eight.

***

The statistics also highlight a very curious particularity.  It seems that, among the conditions which predispose the acquisition of this “previous memory”, violent death must first be cited.  Pr Stevenson noted that 25% of the cases he investigated in British Columbia, and 85% of those that he studied in Lebanon and Turkey belonged to this category.  This is also inexplicable…

***

If the hypothesis of reincarnation is accepted, in view of the fact that the Earth’s population continues to increase, how is it that there are enough souls for everyone?  Opinions vary.  According to some, there is a continuous creation of new souls – which leads us to think that some people living today are alive for the first time.  According to others, a single soul can reincarnate into several bodies at once.  Finally, there are those who think that souls coming from another world can very easily reincarnate into the body of someone on Earth…

***

How can the theory of reincarnation be reconciled with the laws of heredity and genetics?  Pr Poznansky replies that

“the mixture of what comes from your parents and from your former lives form this new, unique being which is you“.

***

Few people allude to the period of time “between two lives”.  However Guy Breton cites a few lines written by an eight year old child which were published by Louis Pauwels in his book Les Voies de petites communications.

“April 1906.  Here are my memories:

“Before being inside Mummy, I wasn’t on Earth, I was in another land, I was in an immense, immense black forest which had no end.  I walked for hours without seeing a little ray of sunshine and light.  Only the Devil could come out of this sort of forest.  We were covered in wool, and we walked, walked – while waiting.”

***

As a philosopher once said, we are perhaps as old as the world…

***

I should like to add that I have memories of at least six previous lives  The first as a male black panther who was killed by a snake bite when fairly old.  The second is from well before our present era.  I was a priestess of Isis, but not in Egypt.  I don’t know how I died.  The third is from the Christian era, possibly in Britain, where I accidentally died by suffocation under torture (accused of witchcraft), during the Middle Ages or before.  I have not tried to find the exact period.  I just want to forget about it.  I was female.  The fourth is from a similar vast period of time, probably before the Middle Ages.  My half-brother died in a wood one Winter and was eaten by wolves.  Possibly in France.  I was female.  The fifth is from the French Revolution where my brother was killed.  We were very close.  I was female.  The sixth is from around the 1930’s.  I was a male doctor.  I don’t know where.

There may have been others, but I only have clear images or memories of these six now.  I was accused of lying and punished.  So, I stopped talking about my strange experiences.  However, it didn’t stop them from happening.

***

On 11 November 1918, France was dancing in the streets.

In Calais, this Victory joy started an astounding story.

One evening in 1948, Michel Davel tells his wife of thirteen years, Rose-Mary Adrian, that he has just remembered that he is not really Michel.

“My memory has come back.  I’m not French…  I’m English…  My name is George Littlon.  I was living in Adelaide when I had my accident, and I already had a legitimate wife who is still alive…

“My memory came back suddenly three days ago, and I made some enquiries.  My wife is still living in Adelaide.  I saw her yesterday and she recognized me straight away.”

Rose-Mary is completely bewildered.  Michel, or rather George, tries to make her understand.

“In 1934, on 12 August, I had a fall, I opened my skull, I lost my memory and I was transported to hospital.  Then, I don’t know what happened, but when I woke, I was speaking French.  I said that my name was Michel Davel.  As I didn’t have any papers on me, the administrative personnel took me for a French sailor who had jumped ship, and the Australian authorities gave me a resident’s card and a work permit.  Then I met you and, for thirteen years, I had no doubts.  Curiously, I had in my mind all the memories of someone else…  of the one that you loved before.”

Rose-Mary thinks that she is going mad.  How can she believe this story, when her husband has kept reminding her throughout these thirteen years of marriage, of a thousand details from their youth, a thousand facts that they alone knew?

Imagining that her husband has invented this extravagant story to be able to leave her, she goes to the police.  But it is not long before she learns that it is all true.

Then, broken, she goes to England and entrusts her French friends with investigating what has happened to the real Michel Davel.

One morning, she receives the answer.  An answer which terrifies her:  Michel had died accidentally on 12 August 1934, that is to say on the same day that the other one, in Australia, had cracked his skull…

***

Rose-Mary Adrian, having learnt that the real Michel had died on the exact date of the false Michel’s accident, was so troubled that she decided to consecrate the rest of her life to trying to pierce the mysteries of death.  And she founded a metapsychical research society.  She and certain members of this society investigated the case which personally touched her, and she published the result of the enquiry.

***

The enquiry proved that George Littlon, the false Michel, really did have an accident on 12 August 1934;  that he had been transported to hospital in a coma;  that when he woke up, he had declared that he was French and was called Michel Davel;  that he didn’t speak one word of English at the time.  He had no identifying papers on him.

***

The hypothesis that the false Michel could have met the real Michel between 1918 and 1934, and learned about Rose-Mary, has been envisaged.  But this idea had to be abandoned.  It has been proven that George Littlon, who had arrived in Adelaide as a child, had never left Australia, and that Michel Davel had never set foot in this part of the world…

***

The possibility that, during his sixteen years of marine life, Michel Davel could have been, for a very short time, a member of a crew which might have briefly stopped in an Australian port, and that during a drunken night, he had confided in a stranger – George Littlon – has also been considered.  But George would have had to have had an astoundingly inhuman memory to remember details such as the colour of the dress worn by Rose-Mary on 11 November 1918, the French music to which the two young people had danced, the songs that they had sung, without mentioning the sonnet that the young girl had written.  It is impossible.  Further, how could George Littlon have “recognized” Rose-Mary on a crowded Melbourne street without ever having seen her before?

Even if he had seen a photo of her, remembering her face after having seen a photo for a few seconds, again demands an extraordinary memory.  On top of which, this photo, if it existed, would have been of Rose-Mary at the age of seventeen.  She was thirty-four when George Littlon meets her in Melbourne.  If we admit the impossible, that is to say that there was a contact between Michel Davel and George Littlon before 1934, why would George have taken on Michel’s identity when he woke from his coma?  Why would he abandon his brilliant situation in Adelaide to become a docker in Melbourne?

All sorts of suppositions have been studied, including the possibility that George had fallen instantly in love with a photo, and had plotted the whole thing.  But all the different scenarii leave too many unanswered questions.  The most important one being: why did George Littlon have his accident on the same day that Michel Davel died?  There is no valid explanation.

***

Here is the hypothesis retained by certain parapsychologists:  according to them, the real Michel’s spirit, at the moment of his death, immediately reincarnated into the body of George Littlon which was, at this moment, more or less “available”, because of his unconsciousness…

***

This raises the question of what George Littlon’s spirit was doing while his body was animated by that of Michel Davel.  George Littlon has no memory of this thirteen-year period.  As if his soul had wandered in a “somewhere else” which had left no trace in his memory.  But where?  And this is not the only question mark in this extraordinary story…

***

On 11 November 1918, the whole of France was dancing in the streets.

In Calais, one of these explosions of joy at the end of the war would be the start of a fantastic story.

It is the 11 November 1918, in Calais.  Since eleven o’clock in the morning, that extraordinary moment when all of the town’s bells started ringing to announce the end of the war, an over-excited crowd has been running through the streets waving flags and singing La Marseillaise, La Madelon or Tipperary.  People are crying, people are laughing, people are embracing each other, people are drinking to victory.  People are dancing on street corners, calling out “Death to Wilhelm!” and “Long live Clemenceau!”…

In this mad crowd, there are two people who don’t know each other yet, but Destiny will suddenly bring them face to face, and they will be called to live the most extraordinary, the most astounding adventure…

His name is Michel Davel.  He is twenty years old and a simple sailor.  Her name is Rose-Mary Adrian.  She is blonde, she has blue eyes, she is ravishing, she is seventeen.  She lives with her parents in a big house surrounded by a park, on the edge of Calais.  Her father is English, her mother is French.  She speaks both of their languages fluently.

Michel is alone in the crowd, but Rose-Mary is accompanied by three female cousins, four to five years older than she.  All four have pinned red, white and blue rosettes and minuscule British flags on their coats or berets.  Arms linked, they approach a little improvised dance where couples are dancing to the tune Viens, Poupoule.  This is where Michel, in the crowd watching the dancers, suddenly notices Rose-Mary.  He is fascinated by such charm, such fragility, such blondness.  And because, on this day, everything is allowed, he approaches, takes the young girl’s arm, and asks her to dance.

Amused, she turns her head.  He is a sailor, a pretty boy, it’s Victory:  she follows him willingly, very proud to have been chosen.

As soon as they start to dance, they feel themselves invaded by an emotion that neither had ever known.  And exactly like in those Middle Ages stories where a princess and a knight suddenly find themselves tied together by a charm, they suddenly fall madly in love with one another…

When the music stops, the sailor takes Rose-Mary back to her cousins;  but he doesn’t leave her.  He has decided that he will never leave her, ever.  One of the young girls asks Rose-Mary if the gentleman is going to remain with them.  She answers simply “Yes!”

The whole group plunges back into the crowd.  The three cousins in front, Rose-Mary and Michel behind, hand in hand, revelling in a strange pleasure which is making them a little lightheaded…

They see each other again the next day, the day after that, and every day.  And one evening, Rose-Mary announces to her parents that she wants to get married.

Mr Adrian makes enquiries about Michel and learns that the young man has “neither fortune nor expectations”…  So, like in a Paul Bourget novel, he categorically opposes the marriage, and absolutely forbids his daughter to see “that boy” again.

Rose-Mary is grief-stricken.  She sobs, she no longer wants to live.  She becomes ill.  After a few weeks, Mr Adrian has an idea:

“To help you get better, we are going to leave France.  We will go to live in Australia.  Over there, you will make new acquaintances and you will forget in the end…  Believe me, I am speaking the language of wisdom.  Mesalliances have never given happy marriages!”

One month later, the Adrian family leaves Calais and goes to settle in Australia.  And the years pass by.  But Rose-Mary remains faithful to Michel.  She refuses all offers of marriage, all boyfriends, all suitors.  And there are a lot of them around this intelligent, beautiful, rich girl.

At the beginning of 1935, she is thirty-four when her parents die from an epidemic.  She then leaves Perth and goes to live in Melbourne.  And that is where, one morning, in the street, she suddenly finds herself face to face with a man who stops her and cries out her name.  This voice that she would have recognized anywhere, almost makes her faint.  She murmurs “Michel!”

However, she has trouble recognizing the face of the little sailor from 1918.  In seventeen years, he has changed.  He seems taller;  his face is even different:  the jaw is wider and the blue eyes are darker than before…  But he is speaking, and she hears again his accent from France’s North, his expressions, his laugh.

He pulls her into a cafe and, for an hour, they evoke their memories.  The images that he resuscitates touch her deeply, for he remembers everything:  from the dress that she was wearing on 11 November 1918, to the colour of her beret, the little flags that she had pinned to it, the music to which they had danced, what he said to her while accompanying her home that evening, a piano that was playing in the night when he kissed her for the first time, their secret meetings on the following days, a sonnet that she had written for him and that he still knows by heart, a song that they sang together.  He has forgotten nothing!…  She asks him what he is doing there.

“I’m a docker in the port of Melbourne since last year…  My English is so bad that I couldn’t find anything better…”

She asks him when he had arrived in Australia.

“My answer is going to astonish you:  I don’t know.  I had an accident on 12 August last.  I was picked up on the side of the road with a skull fracture and taken to hospital.  When I woke up, there was a big shadowy zone in my memory…  And you?”

Rose-Mary recounts her life with her parents.  Michel learns that she is still not married, and proposes.

They are married the following month.  Rose-Mary gets Michel – in spite of his bad English – into a business run by a friend of her father, and they are happy, a fairy-tale happiness, for thirteen years…

But, one evening in 1948, Michel, who had been absent for two days, returns home looking so upset that his wife rushes to him and asks him what has happened.

Michel remains silent for a long time.  Then he speaks.  And Rose-Mary looks at him in astonishment, for he is speaking in perfect English.  And this is what he says:

“Rose-Mary…  I have just discovered a frightening thing…  I am not Michel…”

To be continued.

Right at this particular moment, I am proud to live in the Australian Capital Territory.

Since returning to Australia, I have often been puzzled, not to say annoyed, by the continual waffling of Australian politicians, as they try to avoid doing anything constructive about the environment.  Reams of paper have been devoted to all sorts of studies and surveys.  Experts have given advice.  Scientists have suddenly found themselves on national television, blinking in the unaccustomed light of public scrutiny, only to be shot down (figuratively, at this stage) by politicians spouting stuff where the words “feasibility”, “working families” (always a favourite with Labor) and the now rarer “not proven” are to be heard.

The scientists scurry back to the safety of their relative anonymity (they are often very well-known and respected in their own scientific circles) and politicians get back to more “serious” issues, like how much space should be allowed on footpaths for al fresco meals.  This last issue being important enough locally, to warrant quite a lot of Canberra journalists rushing out to interview a wide range of cafe and restaurant owners, and give them all a bit of free publicity in the local news.  Several days in a row.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the same Legislative Assembly which is so concerned about footpaths, in the places which actually have footpaths – we could do with a lot more of them – has been quietly setting up something wonderful in local schools.  We have yet to see how it will function, but the principle is something which, since returning Down Under, I have been screaming at my television set, every time that the word “environment” returns to the forefront in the news.

“Why on Earth don’t you work with our Aboriginal peoples?!”  I shout.  “It’s their speciality!  Their whole culture is about environmental conservation!  They have thousands of years of experience with Australia’s different environments!  Why are you all so stupid?!”  Sadly, the people inside the television set don’t hear me.  This must be the way that ghosts feel.  Ignored, as if they don’t exist.

Then, this wonderful thing happened.  On 24 May 2010, the ACT Government put out a media release, entitled AUSTRALIAN FIRST SEES ACT STUDENTS LEARN ABOUT ABORIGINAL LANDCARE.  Not a catchy title, but the contents of the release made me want to sing.  I didn’t, though.  I just shrieked “yes!” and forwarded the release on to other like-minded people, as we now say.  However, I did add a few gushing sentences.  No-one has yet answered, and today is 7 June.  They are obviously not as like-minded as I had thought.  “Alone, again.  Naturally.”

Simon Corbell, who is the ACT’s Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water, announced that, for the first time in Australia (which saw European settlement in 1788) students will be taught about the traditional landcare practices of our local Aboriginal Elders, the Ngunnawal People.  Minister Corbell said:

“Aboriginal communities in the local region have a rich history of landcare and there is a lot we can learn to better our current practices and strategies in Canberra.

“Our younger generations are the environmental advocates of the future and giving school students this valuable knowledge can only have a positive impact on the local environment into the future.”  Commas are often rare in Government media releases.

The programme is called Understanding the Land through the Eyes of the Ngunnawal People – A Natural Resource Management Programme for ACT Schools.  Another not-very-catchy title.  Governments specialize in them.  The programme will be taught in ACT schools from Pre-School to Year 10.  The Minister also said:

“The information provided in this curriculum will help our children understand, respect and value special sites and areas around Canberra, places like Sandwash and Tidbinbilla.

“The programme will also support Aboriginal children with a continued sense of pride and give them an opportunity to teach fellow students some of the landcare practices of their elders.

“Schools will be given a range of resources supporting the programme, including specific information and photographs on local Aboriginal flora and fauna, audio interviews of local Aboriginal Elders, a booklet for teachers and a DVD.

“I am pleased to have the opportunity to launch such an important curriculum for ACT students and look forward to seeing some of the results in our local environment over coming years.” 

Nice one, Minister.  Now, may I draw your attention to the fact that, according to Jessica Good on WIN News, the ACT has just experienced its wettest Autumn in twenty years?  The Territory’s rooves, unaccustomed to so much rain, have been leaking to such an extent that my roofer is two months overdue in his running repairs to mine.

With all this water, could you possibly see your way clear to having another look at our Stage Three Water Restrictions status?  It would be nice to pop down for a visit to Stage Two for a while.

While we’re on the subject, should the ACT Government really be putting all that time and effort, not to mention taxpayers’ money, into advertising the joys of Living in Canberra, in the hope of encouraging people from overseas and interstate to move here, when we are still on Stage Three Water Restrictions?  Wouldn’t it be more intelligent to fix the water supply first?

In the meantime, congratulations to the ACT Government on this Australian First with the First Australians.  How long will it be before all of the States and Territories follow this example?  Five years?  Ten?  Twenty?  At least the ball is rolling.

And, right now, I am very proud to be living in the Australian Capital Territory.

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