Tag Archive: 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.

Haiku in the night

I don’t know whether it was the Moon, the transit of Venus across the Sun, or that enormous block of chocolate that I ate before going to bed but, in the early hours of the morning, I was harassed by four haiku.  This meant that I had to climb out of bed in the freezing cold, find a notebook, hurry back to bed, try to remember them all, write them down, turn off the light again and wait to warm up before going back to sleep.

With the aim of spreading the joy around a bit, I’ve posted two of them here:

http://mkdennis.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/haiku-and-the-great-barrier-reef

That blog had been sleeping for around eighteen months, so it was rather surprised to be woken.

Well, I don’t see why I should be the only one to be deprived of sleep.

Here are the other two:

***

Tornado winds shake

The house, billow the curtains

And rattle the glass.

***

Haiku in the night

Shuffle and weave captured words

While wind prevents sleep.

***

As you can see, things were rough.  Everything’s calmed down now.  Thank Heaven!

There is just one thing that I don’t understand:  the night in question was the one before last, so why did the haiku strike twenty-four hours later?

My mind works in mysterious ways.  Or is that God?  Sleep deprivation tends to muddle me.

“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.

***

Death of a Tree

Cover of the invitation to the opening of the exhibition.

On Friday, the tree outside my fence was massacred.  The people who did it were laughing while they lopped and chopped.  I could hear the branches hitting the ground and was very distressed because it reminded me of something similar which had happened in France.  The tree was across the road from my apartment.  There were three of them and that part of the municipal hospital was named after them.

Something strange happened to me while the tree was being slaughtered.  I couldn’t watch but, along with the dreadful noise of the machine and the voices of the men, I could “hear” the tree screaming and feel its fear.  At the same time, I could feel the waves of love coming from the other two trees as they tried to comfort it.  I was sobbing with them.  It was an extraordinary connection with the trees but it is not one that I ever want to renew.  At least, not in those circumstances.

A few months later, an Art exhibition on the theme of “Trees” called, ironically, Une envie d’arbre en vie [Wanting a tree alive], from a poem by Pierre-Hugues Robieux, was held and I decided to add a text about this dreadful experience to the others that I had prepared for the opening of the exhibition.  Naturally, it was in French, so I have translated it.  It is not really a poem.  I am an actress and I often write texts in lines like poems because it helps me with my interpretation.  I have kept the same lay-out as the original.  However, bear in mind that this is only a translation.  The original is better.

Pierre-Hugues Robieux' poem (which he dashed off in slightly under three minutes, right before my eyes - so much talent is unfair to the rest of us).

I started to cry before it was finished and there was deathly silence afterwards.  The Mayor and several Councillors were present and nobody dared to applaud.  Only one of the artists, a sculptor, had the courage to step up to me and say sympathetically, “You feel everything, don’t you?”  The answer to that is unfortunately yes, I do.  “And in Spring, too.”  He shook his head.  The Mayor swooped on me, babbling several times, “It’s not true!”  just like a little boy.

The papers did not mention “the incident” but there were references to my words, including this text.  The scandal was minor and I included the text in the closing reception.  This time the Mayor wasn’t there and it was applauded.

 

Death of a Tree

*

It’s dead.

They killed it.

They chopped off its branches one after the other.

The tree was screaming.

They heard nothing.

They were joking, telling each other funny stories between blows from the chainsaw.

The tree’s brothers were crying with it.

They were sending it waves of love to support it in its ordeal.

***

It was Spring.

The birds had barely started their nests.

The leaves were of that tender green of renewal.

***

The men and their noisy machines massacred the old oak.

At noon, tired, they left for lunch, leaving the trunk of bleeding stumps standing in the sun,

Its sliced branches spread out at its foot.

***

In the afternoon, refreshed, the executioners came back to cut down the trunk and chop it up.

Oblivious.

They are paid to do it.

To obey, no questions asked.

***

Today, it’s Summer.

The birds of the two other oaks have squeezed their brethren from the dead tree in with them.

Sometimes, quarrels erupt;  they have less room.

The cars, which used to park in the shade of the missing tree,

Have pulled back to the parking lot outside the kitchen at the hospital.

In full sunlight.

***

There are only two oaks left

At Three Oaks Domain.

But not to worry!

“They” do not intend to change its name!

***

Perhaps, in the future, when our grown-up grandchildren are puzzled by this name,

We shall evoke again the third oak,

Sacrificed for a roundabout.

***

There is an epilogue to this story.  A few months after this exhibition, I was called to Australia, where my mother was dying.  In 2005, having bought a house here, I popped back to France to organize the move.  Upon opening my shutters, the first thing that I saw was a young oak tree, recently planted on the other side of the road near the roundabout.  I know that there had been no plans to replace the murdered oak before I read my text, so I conclude that I had some influence on it.

While writing my letter of resignation from various municipal commissions, I thanked the Council for planting the oak and hoped that it would be a reminder of my dozen years in their town.

I like to think that the little oak hasn’t died and is strongly growing, despite the trucks that rumble past it to deliver supplies to the hospital.

Invitation to the exhibition. My name is not with the poets because I was exhibiting as well, so I'm in with the visual artists.

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.

***

Among the most famous ghosts that haunt Paris, those of the victims of the Saint-Barthelemy massacre have been seen by many people and inspired this aquarelle which can be seen at Carnavalet.

The husband – or rather the ex-husband – of the lady that Guy Breton calls Elisabeth is a famous French actor of foreign birth.  The couturiere had died several years before he wrote this.  Mr Breton is absolutely sure of the authenticity of these stories.  They had been recounted to him by trustworthy witnesses, and confirmed by others.

***

In the present state of our knowledge, we can only state the facts without seeking to construct theories which would only repose on suppositions…  However, for numerous researchers, and even for numerous scientists, these phenomena are considered as the proof that beings are not annihilated by death and that they continue to live…  Apart from that, there are naturally a thousand questions to be asked:  Of what does their substance consist?  Where do they reside?  Are they happy?  Do they remain in contact with us?  etc.

***

For some specialists there is, in the apparition of a ghost, only a cerebral impression which is transformed into an image.  This has no more reality than a rainbow, which we see, analyze and photograph…  However, your neighbour sees a different rainbow than the one that you see, and your left eye doesn’t see the same one that your right eye sees…  All this has no reality.  The rainbow is an optical illusion, and the ghost is perhaps – let us be prudent – an illusion created by a spirit which “suggests” a form to us…  It is this mental impression which transforms itself into an image…  Guy Breton cites another case:  it is another personality from the theatre and film worlds.  This actor – it is Michel Simon – is driving very fast one night.  Suddenly, he sees in his headlights, at the side of the road, a man who is waving his arms at him.  At the moment when he passes by him, he is astounded, for he recognizes his father…  his father who died a long time ago…  He stops, reverses:  no-one!  He is so emotional that he starts to tremble.  He prefers not to continue his route.  He turns around and goes to an inn that he had noticed on his way past.  He sleeps there.  And the next day, he learns that, about two hundred metres after the place where he had had his vision, a tree had fallen in the wind and was blocking the road…  He would most certainly have been killed if he had continued.  However, it cannot be said that the ghost of the actor’s father prevented an accident;  but he played a role in his son’s destiny.

***

If we admit as a working hypothesis that ghosts exist, where do they “live”?  Metaphysicists would say;

“In another world very close to us, which is nothing more than a parallel universe with which we have, from time to time, some contact…”

***

On a personal note, I have not, to my knowledge, ever seen a ghost.  I say “to my knowledge” because ghosts are frequently not diaphanous beings floating down the corridors of haunted houses.  They are often very substantial in appearance and, unless recognized by someone as being a deceased person known to him or her during its lifetime, can be thought to be a “live” person by those with whom it comes into contact.

That said, I have certainly had contacts with deceased persons from my own family:  both of my grandmothers, my father and my mother.  I am absolutely certain about the identity of the first three, and am fairly certain about the last one.  There is a very small chance that it could have been my cousin but now, several years later, I am reasonably sure that it was my mother.  I am afraid that I snarled at her to “go away” because I was afraid that the noise that she was making would wake my cousin’s daughter with whom I was sharing a room that night.  My mother was very susceptible while alive so, needless to say, she has not visited me again.  The other family members each only visited once, not very long after their deaths.

The first grandmother to die let me know that she was there by laughing softly.  She had a very distinctive, not to say annoying, laugh while alive, so there was no doubt about who she was.  I was watching my daughter sleeping.  My grandmother had known that I was pregnant before she died, and absolutely loved children, so she came to visit us a few weeks after my daughter’s birth.  Her laugh came from slightly behind me.  I was near a mirror but was placed so that I could not see either my own reflection, nor that of anything behind me.  I turned quickly to look behind me but saw nothing, then “knew” that she was no longer there.  I was very, very happy about her visit.

My second grandmother played my music-box, which was not wound-up and had been open for months with various bits and pieces of make-up standing in it.  The music was very slow.  I was in a different house from before but with the same mirror next to the music-box.  By the time I realized what was happening and turned around to look for her, she had gone.

My father was a scientist (and an artist – music and painting, although he had tried acting and writing, too) and some years before his death, while on a visit to him in Australia from France where I was living, I screwed up my courage to tell him about his mother’s visit (first grandmother) absolutely certain that he would laugh at me.  He didn’t.  He just smiled and went to his room.

Daddy was one of those men who consider females to be intellectually inferior to males.  However, he did enjoy talking to his mother-in-law (second grandmother) who was a very intelligent lady.  I am sure that they met and had a chat after his death and she told him about how she had played my music-box.  As Daddy was also the sort of man who had to be better than anyone else at everything he did (when he realized that he wasn’t, he abandoned the activity) he naturally came to play my music-box much faster, and for much longer, than his mother-in-law had done.  I had been trying to put on my make-up, through tears, to go to work, when he arrived.  The music-box started and I immediately knew who it was and was laughing and crying at the same time.  Trust Dad!  He always had to be better than anyone else!

My mother’s visit (if it was indeed she) took place in her sister’s home in Sydney, where the remaining members of the family had gone to celebrate that lady’s ninetieth birthday.  Most of us had gone to sleep at a motel but her eldest granddaughter and myself shared a room in her house for the night.  The granddaughter went to sleep straight away but I always have trouble adapting to bedrooms other than my own, so was doing my best to relax when a very annoying banging started at the end of my neighbour’s bed.  I was afraid that it would wake her, so sprang up in the dark and felt my way down to the noise.  We had both dumped all of our luggage on the floor upon arriving the day before and something (I do not remember what now) was swinging back and forth with a banging noise.  It was going faster and faster.  I grabbed it and stopped it and did my snarl.  Then proceeded to trip over some of the luggage on my way back to bed, thereby waking the room’s other occupant, which was what I had been trying to avoid in the first place.

So, those are my “contacts” with ghosts that I have been able to recognize (with the possible exception of my mother).  There have been a few other odd bits and pieces but (1) I am not sure that they were ghosts and (2) if they were, I do not know their identities.

***

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