Watching Compass, or something like that, where everyone tells a sad story, they get onto the topic of lonely repressed children with imaginary friends..
—-Remember your imaginary friends? Says Mum. Popeye and Mango?
Something stirs. Mango left the scene early-probably couldn’t stand the oldies. Popeye lasted a bit longer, but Dad never left him alone-teased him, and criticised him constantly - it was all I could do to defend the poor little bugger. They thought it was a scream. The crisis came during one of our long car journeys when Father decided that Popeye had been impossibly rude, and threw him out the car window. I bawled so determinedly that Mother insisted on turning the car back. My father found him waiting at the side of the road and returned him to me, but he didn’t last long after that, and who could have blamed him? By then there was a younger sister for whose entertainment I was responsible, so , no time for friends.
Mother brings in mugs of tea, and a packet of Monte Carlos. Crunchcrunchcrunch. Hell for her diabetes.
The programme has shifted to left handedness; how important it is for your psyche to allow your left hand to do its thing.
—-You were left handed, says Mum . It was easy to fix.
I say—I know. That must be what’s wrong with me.
Mum gives her merry laugh. I can be so witty. Sometimes.
I once had a friend, two years older, who knew magic; had learned it from some witches.
—-I can make people invisible, she said. I’ve learned how.
I was two hundred percent agog, because I loved magic , but couldn’t do it. None of my spells would work, and I had made many magic wands which wouldn’t work, and none of my wishes had come true. So she made us both invisible and we sat on the sunny verandah in that happy condition until we heard our mothers approaching, whereupon she snapped her fingers and reversed the spell. She couldn’t share her magic with me because she had promised not to, and by our next meeting the witches had been killed by some local men. Hers were the only parents I had ever met who were nastier than mine; perhaps it was a schoolteacher thing. Years later, I saw her name, on Gardening Australia, would you believe? and we met up again, but I wasn’t bold enough to mention the invisibility thing.
Her father was a HAM radio enthusiast. They had a monster antenna outside her home, and the two fathers would practice Morse Code in a little built-in section of the verandah, while the mothers drank tea and flopped in the lounge room, and we pretended to mind the two ghastly younger sisters whilst practising magic on the front verandah. Those HAM radio enthusiasts—- Ugh. More than ugh. Years later I had a sort-of boyfriend who was a HAM radio enthusiast, and I learned all about sixty-sixes and eighty-eights and QSL’s. I asked him once about sixty-nines, but he didn’t recognise those. He was quite totally absolutely impotent but didn’t seem to realise it. After meeting his friends I wondered whether HAM radio and sexual incompetence went together. What do sexually incompetent people do for kicks in this digital age? Why did I bother? I guess I was lonely.
Mother struggles to her feet, lurches out of the room. She is a wall-grabber, progresses through the house by bouncing off the walls and the furniture. The toilet flushes, the refrigerator door opens and closes, and we start on a bunch of green grapes. Mother will only buy Thompson grapes, and she seems to know which grapes are Thompson. She also know the difference between silver beet and spinach, and she can locate the bugs which are eating your plants. I never could do any of that.
—-You were short-sighted, she says. You never had your head out of a book. Can you tape Judge Judy for me tomorrow afternoon? I have to go to the doctor.
We are back in the kitchen, fifty years ago, eating the evening meal. Burnt chops, potatoes over salted and burnt dry , and watery mushy choko. I had cooked the tea, but Mother didn’t manage it much better, and anyway, it was one of my many designated chores to cook the tea. Father stares at me with distaste.
——She looks pasty, he declares.
Make me happy, Dad.
Mother lurches out again, and brings us back a Snickers bar. That is all she eats, grapes and Snickers bars. She stopped measuring her blood sugars about ten years ago, but is still alive and kicking. I had brought the Monte Carlos with me.
When I was about five years old, our refrigerator caught fire. I had to practise the piano after school every afternoon, pain of death if I didn’t, and I was first on the scene to see flames licking up the weatherboard walls and to hear the roaring sound of a serious house fire. But did I run for help? No, I stood there and considered my options. The main issue was, I would suffer murderous punishment if I didn’t hit that piano. So, I should have gone past that fire into the scary dining room and done what was required of me. But I didn’t; I shuffled back to the school and stuck my head around the door of Fathers office, and reported to the two seated dragons, my parents, that there was, well, smoke coming out of the refrigerator. Father dawdled to the house, and after that there were other teachers and sixth class boys and a line of buckets and such a frenzy that I hid behind the dunny, sure that the end of my days had come. But there had been so much excitement that everyone forgot to call me out, and I was spared.
The piano teacher was only sixteen, and inclined to giggle. She hadn’t wanted to take me on because she had thought I wouldn’t know the alphabet. How wrong can you be? What teacher’s child has ever reached the age of three without being able to recite the alphabet?
I ask my mother if she remembers the fire. Oh yes, she says, I had forgotten all about that. She checks the TV times but decides there is nothing else to watch, so we switch it off. She gets herself another Snickers Bar, but I have had enough.
Quite recently I saw an Aboriginal man ravaged by drugs and alcohol, and I knew who he was. He had been in first class when I was in fifth class. He was the very youngest of the Home boys. Neglected by their parents, and brutalised in the Home. He was the sweetest dearest little boy, and we girls mothered him, and called him Chocky, which was allowed in those days. The name was right, and the age was right, and the sweet beautiful face was still there, but he rejected any suggestion that we might have known each other, or lived in the same town, absolutely and finally, and I did not want to open old wounds. He lived on Xanax and Valium and OxyContin and alcohol, and he just wanted his prescriptions.
—-Do you remember that little Home boy, Chocky Milton? , I ask Mum.—-He turned up in the surgery.
Mum doesn’t remember him.
—-Your father always said that something bad was going on in that home. They caught Sarge, and sent him to gaol, but I don’t know what happened to his wife.
I had asked Chocky, well, Mr Milton, whether he might think of going back to his roots, to Land, to try to get rid of his addiction and find better health. I had seen inside his flat,— filthy mattress, scattered empty bottles, cigarette butts inches deep, stink of unwashed flesh and clothes. But he just gave me a long look and a sad smile, and I heard later that he had gone back to Broken Hill, where he had many daughters, and I can only hope that they saved him. From himself and his memories.
The old newspapers tell that two boys escaped from the Home, and were discovered, cold and miserable, by a woman who believed their tale and made sure that the right people heard it . Because these boys were written off, discarded, unloved. I remember one boy who was caned at school every day , and probably got worse back at the Home. He screamed and sobbed, but he couldn’t sit still. Today we would call it ADHD ; back then it was bad behaviour.
I was back in that town, and I asked around a little , but no one would talk about the Home. They had blank faces and bad memories. I went out to look at the house but was driven away by the owner, a lady of the local squattocracy in pearls and a cashmere twinset and a Harris Scarfe skirt. With a dog. I hear she is now living in Double Bay.
What do you do with these memories?
You can go to Cognitive Therapy groups, where you imagine to yourself (in a group) a big barred gate clanging shut to lock away these memories forever. One option.
Older people say that you have two feet, and you have to put one foot in front of the other, and keep on walking. Just never stop.
My mother is the most successful survivor. She tells of happy car trips with a small daughter who chatted to her imaginary friends. She tells her cronies how her children just loved looking after each other, and were glad to help with the housework. She is happy that she cured her daughter of her embarrassing left-handed condition. The Home boys were vindicated, and their predator met his just deserts. Her husband was sometimes difficult, but that’s how men are. If you want something out of life, you have to work hard and keep pushing for it. That’s what she had to do. And people are fools to get started on drugs.
So we go to our beds in our separate rooms, and we don’t kiss goodnight, because we never did, and kissing is insanitary.
And tomorrow I go back home and back to work.