Category: Hindsight


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 not in school uniform here, but I must have been around this age.

The teacher on playground duty calls me over.

Have I done something wrong?  Can’t think of anything, but you never know.

I walk over to her, and a few girls gather ’round.  They smell blood.

“Marilyn, what country do you come from?”

Children have already asked me that question.  But this is the first time an adult has.  What’s wrong with me?  Do I look different?

“I was born here.”

“Oh.  Well, what country do your parents come from?”

My parents?  This is really serious!  Why does she think we’re foreigners?

“They were born here, too.  So were my grandparents.”

I threw the grandparent bit in for free.  How far back does she want me to go?

“I’m fourth generation Australian.”

Not quite true.  One great-grandfather was born in Wales.  But I think all the other “greats” were born here.  Close enough!

Similar questions from children never bother me.  They’re only children.  But this is a teacher!  There’s got to be something wrong with me!  I mustn’t be normal!

The bell rings, so that’s the end of that.

***

Many years later, in 2003, on Radio Haute-Angevine, in France, I tell this story to Jean-Francois while I’m his guest on Aux reveurs eveilles [Daydreamers’ Gathering Place].  He chuckles and says,

“Didn’t she mean,  ‘what planet do you come from?’ ?”

Probably.

***

I was a foreigner for nearly four decades in France.  It was my accent.  Most people didn’t know where I was born and guessed all sorts of places.  I was often English, but also Dutch, sometimes German.  Once, I was told that I spoke like the women from the North.  My mother-in-law said that I knitted like them too.  French women don’t hold their knitting needles the same way.

Once, in a bar, an acquaintance was complaining about “foreigners” coming to France.  I reminded him that I was a “foreigner”.  His reply was,

“Oh, you’re different.  You look French.”

So, apparently, foreigners are people who don’t look like you.  Which means that all men are foreigners to me.  Sounds right.

***

While being interviewed in France for State-funded courses susceptible of helping me to find work, I would be asked if I spoke a foreign language.  Having answered in the affirmative, the next question would be which one?  To which I would reply,

“French.”

“Non, non, non!  Foreign language!”

“Mais, oui!  French is my foreign language.  English is my maternal language.”

Confusion.  Fluttering of eyelashes.

“Yes, yes, of course!  We’ll just put down English.  Do you speak it, read it and write it?”

“Of course I do – it’s my maternal language.”

“Ah, yes!  That’s right!”

More confusion.  Big smiles.

To help things along, I would add that I also spoke, read and wrote French – my foreign language.

At this point, my public servant interviewer would often call for aspirin.

One last hope!  Perhaps I’m not French, nor even European, in which case, no State-funded course, therefore no more interview?

No such luck!  Dual nationality!

Make that two aspirins.

***

The photo was taken from the newspaper’s files. I had just had my hair cut short so no longer looked like this.

When I started getting into the papers in France, I was “Australian”.  I remained “Australian” until the dreadful day that Australia bowed to United States pressure to honour a treaty or two, and illegally invaded Iraq.

I was so ashamed that I was afraid to go out for days.  Hunger finally drove me to the shops.  However, people were really kind to me.  No-one mentioned Iraq in my presence and newspapers started calling me “Australian-born”, or “of Australian origin”.  I think that the French only accepted me as “French” when my other country attacked Iraq.

We had all been so proud of being French when France stood up to the United States and refused to join the aggression.  The Americans wrote and said bad things about us in their media and also put a ban on the importation of many French cheeses, supposedly because the way that they were made was dangerous for American health.  However, everyone knew that it was in retaliation for not obeying orders.  So my friends and acquaintances, including in the media, all understood how I must feel about what Australia had done.

***

When I returned to Australia, firstly in 2004 to be with my dying mother, then to settle here in 2005, I thought that I was coming home.  It turns out that I left home to come to Australia.  And I’m a foreigner again.  Or still.  I don’t really know any more.

***

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.

***

Hindsight – First Memory

Mum and I at the beach.

My foot’s stuck.  My fists clutch the cream cot’s flat, wooden bars.  I’ve done this before.  At least twice.  Maybe more.

The room is dim.  The blinds are down.  There’s grey light in the rectangle of the open door.  I can’t get that foot out!  I pull myself up on the right foot, my body off-balance.  I cling to the bars, find my balance…  then the left foot gets stuck!  Every time!

My right leg is shaking.  I try again.  Not quite.  The sheet and blanket are holding my foot.

To the right, there’s a bedside table.  Then the double bed.  This is Nan Dennis’ house.  We live in this room.  There’s a big mirror on the wardrobe door.  I lean to try to see myself.  I lean too far and nearly fall.  My left foot unfolds.  My body wobbles.  I hang on tight!  I crow with surprise.  How did I do that?  I’m standing up!  On both legs!

I look up with a joyful smile and see the silhouette in front of the grey light.  I know who that is!  That’s my Mummy!  I laugh to share my joy.  She doesn’t move.  She doesn’t talk.  She doesn’t tell me how clever I am.  She just stands in the doorway, her full skirt a triangle from waist to mid-calf.  And I’m happy and smiling and laughing and crowing…  And there’s no face.  Just the motionless silhouette…

***

A few years later, I tell my mother about the first time I stood up and how happy I was.  She frightens me in some way.  Perhaps she screams at me.  I know that she tells me I’m lying.  I can’t possibly remember back that far!

But I do.

***

Even more years later, I mention it again.  What’s wrong with Mummy?  There’s fear.  Hers and mine.  I don’t understand.  And I’m a liar again.  I can’t remember!  I was too young!

But I wasn’t.  And I do.

***

Later again, my aunt mentions my broken arm.  Broken arm?  Which arm?  The right.

I don’t remember.

How did it happen?  No-one knows.  I must have fallen down the kitchen step at Nan Dennis’ place.  We live in our own house now.  When a doctor saw it, the bones were already knitting together.  I was about fourteen months old.  A clean break.  He put sticking plaster around it.  The bones hadn’t moved so he didn’t have to break my arm again.

I’d been crying every night when I rolled on it.  I cried when I was having my bath.  Mummy said that it was around the time that I’d started having my bath in the big bathtub.  She thought that I was just frightened.  She put my baby bath in the big tub but I still cried.  One day, I tried to run away from her and she grabbed my arm.  I screamed.  Daddy was there that time.  So we went to the doctor’s.

I don’t remember.

***

Many, many years later, in hindsight, I wondered if it was true that no-one knew how I’d broken my arm.  Mummy’s mental health might have helped my arm to break.  How could no-one see that a child had a broken arm?  Why was Mummy so scared when I remembered the first time that I stood up?  Was she afraid that I would remember how my arm had been broken?

I don’t.

***

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