It's a cold, dark Canberra morning, and I am to have surgery to remove a breast lump. The alarm goes off at 5.30, but I'm already dressed, I've been awake for half the night. We creep around the house, the grandchildren are still asleep. A cup of tea would be comforting, but I can't have one - nil by mouth.
I drive myself - controlling small things seems more than usually important. D. is quiet, probably still in a state of shock; this has all happened very quickly.
When we get to the hospital, there is the admissions procedure to go through - paying the excess on my insurance, reciting my name and date of birth several times, and signing away my right to privacy. But then before I can go through to the waiting room, I am to have another procedure, a medical one. The surgeon has told me about this. It's called a 'hook-wire insertion', and involves inserting a thin wire into the breast with a needle under local anaesthetic to mark the exact spot which needs to be excised - a spot already marked by a metal clip which was inserted when I had the biopsy several days ago, ('Don't worry, it doesn't set the airport XRay machines off!') I am not looking forward to it.
The procedure is done while the breast is clamped in the mammogram machine. The radiologist, a nice man with very clear diction, crouches in front of me while he explains exactly what he is going to do. His description is detailed and factual. The wire has to hit the exact spot, the breast must be positioned just right, it is a fiddly procedure with 'a certain amount of discomfort.' Am I ready?
Ready? This is a philosophical question that requires much more time to answer than I have. What would constitute NOT being ready? What preparations could I do that I haven't done yet? It is a rehearsal. I know I will never be ready for the final moment, even if I were to go through a thousand procedures. Time pulls you inexorably forwards, that's all.
The nurses begin hauling my breast about, clamping and unclamping, changing the position, taking pictures, dozens of them. At last they seem satisfied. The radiologist gives me the local anaesthetic, which is so surprisingly painful despite my most lurid expectations of pain, that a little cry escapes me.
'That's the worst part over,' one of the nurses says. None of us know how wrong she is.
I stare out of the window, and think about people who have had far far worse things done to them, and suffered infinitely more than me. I think about the 'discomfort' as I feel the radiologist getting on with it - and I have a few interesting moments of detachment, as if I seem to experience it as if it's happening to someone else. After an unknown time, but perhaps fifteen minutes, someone says , 'that's it!' cheerfully, and unclamps me. I'm left on a low stool by the machine in my shapeless white gown. I feel very cold. I turn and look at them, the two nurses and the radiologist, standing behind the screen. Their faces are anything but cheerful.
The radiologist comes back, and once more crouches before me. I know this is because he doesn't want to be talking down to me. I like him. If I was his mother, I'd be proud of him.
'I'm afraid it's not good news,' he says. I already knew that. 'This hardly ever happens, but the wire has gone past the mark, it's gone too far!'
'Oh no!' I say, but sympathetically. 'It's important for it to be accurate, I suppose.'
'Absolutely!' he says. 'We've got a couple of alternatives. I can either try to pull it back into the right position, or I can take it out altogether and start again.'
I am silent, gazing at him, nodding, empathic. I seem to have entered counsellor mode.
'I'll have a go at pulling it back into position' he says, after some reflection over the pictures. 'There's a chance it might work.'
I want to say, 'yes, but not today. Today it will not work. You will save yourself time, and me more 'discomfort', if you just start over again.' But I don't. Neither of the nurses has contributed to the discussion. One of them comes and stands by me and holds my hand. She asks me about life in Brindabella, and the snow on the mountain, and my grandchildren. I talk, while the others wrestle with my breast, and whatever else. It's absurd, I am absurd, but talking is as good as a slug of whiskey. I feel emotional about the nurse and don't want her to leave me.
They stand behind the screen studying the result, and briefly they are pleased.
'It's perfect!' says the radiologist.
'You're an artist!' I tell him, indulgent with relief, and he glows and says that's a lovely compliment.
But when they unclamp me and look at the pictures again, their faces fall and I know it's still not over. The radiologist is crouched back before me again; he sighs deeply, he is very uncomfortable. I think he doesn't want to look at me anymore.
'...when we unclamped the breast,' he is explaining, 'the wire jumped back. This is pretty unprecedented. It's only happened to me a couple of times before.'
There is nothing for me to say.
'We'll start over again, from the beginning.'
'Will I have to have another local anaesthetic?'
'No, it lasts four hours,' he says, glad to give some good news.
This time they don't clamp me quite as hard. The nurse stands close again, and we talk like old friends. She has grandchildren too, and they love to go up to the snow.
I am sorry for my breast; I want to protect it, but I can't. Suddenly, I am assailed by a guerrilla army of wild anxieties. Supposing it is too late to have the surgery now, and I have to go home? Supposing they can't do this procedure at all, and there is another, much worse one that I have to endure. Supposing this radiologist hasn't actually done this before at all, and the nurses are just covering for him?
'That's done!' he says, triumphantly. He goes behind the screen and looks; they are a;; smiling, relieved.
'Just one last picture,' the nurse says, 'to send over to theater.'
And they take one more. Then I am trying to cover myself, starting to shiver, and I look over and see their astonished faces. It seems they can't speak. They are leaning in to the machine, staring. They are shaking their heads. They appear deeply puzzled. Shocked even.
'What's the matter?' I say eventually. Someone has to speak.
'It's gone!' they say, coming out from behind the screen as if they are sleepwalking. 'It isn't there anymore!'
'What do you mean, gone?' I say. I have a strange sensation of needing to take charge here, but being half naked still puts me at a disadvantage.
'It's just not there anymore! It's not in the picture! It's not anywhere! It must have come out!'
'How could it have come out?' My tone is that of Mum dealing with bullshit.
The radiologist stands before me, stricken. 'It must have jumped out,' he says. It's designed not to come out, it's got a hook to stop it from coming out. I have never, ever had this happen before.'
I want to send him home. I put my hand on his arm. 'It's alright', I tell him.
But he is deeply rattled. 'We have to find it,' he says, rather wildly. 'It must be accounted for.'
I rise to the occasion, I'm good at this. All four of us commence a search. It's not a large room, but it's full of equipment, and the floor is a mottled grey which would camouflage a small piece of rebellious wire very easily. We move and shake equipment, scan the floor over and over, upend the chairs, check my hair, my gown is removed, examined and passed back to me. The nurses shake out their cardigans, take off their shoes. We start laughing incredulously, but immediately a wave of hysteria enters the room and nearly does for all of us, and we fall silent again.
One of the nurses fetches a brush and pan. She is going to be systematic and starts at the farthest wall where it is inconceivable that the piece of wire could be. Immediately, she finds it, and holds it up triumphantly. Everyone is terribly relieved.
The pathologist has left the room, and now returns. He is sorry, he says plainly, and repeats that this has never happened to him before and he can't explain it He says he is sending me over to his colleague in ultrasound who will do the procedure using the ultrasound machine.
'In view of the bizarreness happening here,' he says, spreading his hands helplessly, 'I think a different pair of...' Hands? Eyes? Nurse assistants? I don't know, because he trails off, and leaves.
Over in ultrasound, the new radiologist is brisk and does not want to engage with the story about what happened, although I am dying to tell it. I lie back quite comfortably. One nurse silently assists, staring intently at the screen, while I stare intently at her pretty face and wonder if she gets used to such gazes. It is over so quickly I don't remember it beginning. In fact, strangely, I can't remember it at all. I am on my way back to the admissions center, for the main event. Ready?
My mother was a 'plain cook' - her own expression. She lived with rationing in the Second World War, and never really lost the habit of 'making do with what you've got.' She stuck to a strict grocery budget, and a limited repertoire of meals. We cycled through them predictably - Monday was cold slices of topside from the weekend roast, with mashed potato and frozen peas; Tuesday was sausages, with the same. And so on. But she made dessert every day - rice pudding, jam tart, bread and butter pudding, stewed apple. And she always made a chocolate cake if we were having a picnic.
I got interested in cooking as a teenager, but I had no interest in making the same things as my mother. There was a food revolution going on in the sixties, alongside the other revolutions, and the idea that dinner had to mean meat and two vegetables was being challenged. People discovered that other countries had different and delicious cuisines. (The Women's Weekly Cookbook for 1970, which I still have an extremely battered copy of, had an 'International Cookery' section, with recipes for Beef Vindaloo and 'Swedish Smorgasbord.') It was exciting to experiment. A meal could be a mixture of a whole lot of different ingredients and spices, rather than clearly distinct items on a plate. And you didn't have to have potato with every meal!
I started putting recipes in a pretty little book I brought back from SE Asia. The first recipe I wrote in it was Christmas Cake. This was my best friend's mother's recipe - my mother never made Christmas Cake, there were just too many expensive ingredients in it. When I made my first one, at about the age of sixteen, I bought the dried apricots, and ground almonds and the rest out of pocket money. My mother was impressed, and immediately had me cast as an adventurous, if rather extravagant cook. I quickly followed with other delicious cakes that we had never had the likes of at home before - Butterscotch Cake is on the next page, followed by Apple Teacake. I used butter. It gave an infinitely tastier result than margarine, but to my mother it was an extravagance. She'd got into the habit of 'substituting' margarine in the UK in the war, and never stopped, even though butter was subsidized by the New Zealand government and cheap as chips. The only cake recipe of hers that I copied into my book was for her Chocolate Cake. Though it calls for '4 oz of margarine', it also uses real milk chocolate in the icing, which I like to think is an indication of how highly my mother rated our picnics.
There are only four recipes in my book that I had from my mother - the Chocolate Cake, 'pastry', Steamed Pudding, and Batter Pudding. The Batter Pudding recipe is unique; I've never seen it anywhere else, or known anyone else who made it. Simple though it is, there is a knack to making it. It too uses a naughty quantity of butter - the batter actually swims in melted butter as you put it into the oven, already starting to cook a little bit. And, you have to know the precise moment to open the oven door and take it out - too soon and it sinks, too late and it toughens. My mother had the knack, no doubt.
There are many recipes in the early part of my recipe book that reflect the new seventies interest in meals that combine ingredients in new and daring ways. A recipe for Lamb Curry (still an all time favourite), uses red wine and sour cream! (The left over roast lamb on Monday was never the same again.) Dutch Rice Curry Casserole combined chuck steak, rice and pineapple juice in the same pot, slow cooked in the oven. I'm still not sure what was Dutch about it. Beef Macaroni combined beef mince, bacon, onion, and tomato soup. You simmered them all together in that ubiquitous seventies invention, the electric frying pan. D and I loved it, and all through the eighties I made it for my kids and they loved it too. Then one day, it had become a thing of the past, like the electric frying pan it was made in, a completely old fashioned and slightly weird and boring thing your mother did. Taking the world by storm were salads that had meat in them, and pasta dishes in which everything had come out of your own amazing vegetable garden, and you'd even spent the afternoon making the pasta yourself.
But I'd stopped writing recipes in my book by then, although there are a lot of loose ones tucked inside it, that have been ripped from magazines or given to me by friends. Most of them, I have to confess, I've never tried, for all they sound totally brilliant - Broad Bean Dip, Sour Cherry Pie with Lattice Crust, Beetroot and Carrot Salad. The book is falling apart, its covers long since lost, and the pages stained with cocoa and splattered with oil and stock and tomato juice and wine and God knows what else. It's all held together with a thick elastic band.
The other day, I had a text message out of the blue from 13 year old grand daughter, J - 'Grandma, can you send me some recipes?' J is an enthusiastic cook, and has often helped me in the kitchen, but I knew at once that this was something different. I checked with her - yes, she wanted recipes for meals, things that she had eaten at my house and loved. The Lamb Curry was one. She could have used her phone to get any recipe she wanted off the internet, of course, but she wanted Grandma's recipes.
I found a pretty, hard backed book, with a farm-themed decoration on the cover - cows and ducks and produce, and I set about copying into it some of my best, tried and true, simple meals. Grandad has also been asked for his amazing Naaan Bread recipe, and he can write that one in himself. Then there will be the rest of the book, dozens of clean fresh pages, for her to write her own favourites, and splatter with their juices.
(A great way to use left over roast lamb.)
2 cups diced cooked lamb
1 diced apple
2 onions, diced
1 green capsicum, diced
2 teaspoons garlic
2 whole cloves
2 tablespoons flour
handful of seedless raisins or sultanas
quarter cup of shredded coconut
2 tablespoons sour cream
half cup red wine
1 cup of vegetable stock
juice and rind of a lemon
1 dessertspoon of curry powder
pinch each of thyme and marjoram
half teaspoon salt
Saute apple, onion, capsicum, and garlic in olive oil, in large saucepan. Sprinkle in flour, curry powder, salt and herbs. Mix well, and cook 5 minutes. Add stock, wine, raisins, cloves, and lemon rind and juice, and simmer 20 minutes. Add lamb and coconut, heat 15 minutes. Stir in sour cream just before serving. Serve with rice and Grandad's Naan Bread.
My sister is 'downsizing'. She has sold her big house in the country, and is buying a much smaller place, close to services and shops, in a Victorian seaside town. Over the holidays, I went with her to have a look at a few houses for sale.
The ones I loved were 100 year old weatherboard Federation style houses, with lovely high ceilings, and stained glass windows, and carved mantelpieces, and beautiful wooden floors with the rich patina of being trodden by many feet over many years, and gardens with huge old trees and ancient gnarled wisteria climbing everywhere. These houses also had asbestos issues, holes in the gutters, rotten stumps, non-compliant verandas, and needed all their wiring replacing.
'I don't want to buy a whole new set of problems,' said my sister wisely, if a little wistfully.
We went to look at a more modern, brick house, situated close to the town center.
When we got out of the car and saw that the front yard was completely concreted and not a single tree or bush to be seen, my sister said, 'Let's get out of here,' but I urged her on.
'We've got to have something to compare,' I said.
A man in his forties was hovering about, trying to control a very large, aggressive-looking, bull mastiff type of dog, who barked incessantly the whole time we were there. He had been, (still was), a very good looking man, but was clearly going to seed, muscles turning to fat, and some sort of massive resentment or unhappiness written all over his face.
The agent, a typically smart, heavily made up, high-heeled woman of a certain age, greeted us without enthusiasm. She could see immediately that the next 15 minutes of her life was going to be wasted.
The rooms were all pokey, the carpets stained. The built in robes had been abused by teenagers. In the master bedroom, a king size bed filled the room, and had been hastily covered by a leopard print doona, while a huge mirror covered the entire wall opposite. The kitchen was run down, with only a single sink and a badly marked upright stove, and no pantry.
A long, tacked-on living space at the back of the house had a raised platform to accommodate two absolutely enormous recliner chairs. Two others sat on the floor below them, all four facing in the same direction - towards a massive TV screen on the opposite wall. The windows had some complicated mechanism for being blacked out completely.
We went out into the backyard. The man still hovered, holding his dog by its collar. Across the entire width of the backyard was a shed, with a large sign over the door, 'Man Cave.' A sort of half giggle, half snort escaped me. I felt the man watching us go in - oh, how he longed to let go of the dog! We were intruders now.
There was a huge bar, such as might be accommodated in an average sized pub, and complete with all the spirits you could ever want or think of. Parked next to it was a helicopter. It looked to be about the same size as E's helicopter, and I peeked inside - it was a two-seater, so definitely bigger than his. Next to that was about $80,000 worth of power boat on a very large trailer - but I know nothing of power boats, it could well have been worth more. We walked on, a bit dazed. There was a bedroom with another king size bed - it looked as if the man outside had only just got out of it 10 minutes ago. Next to the bedroom, a single shower and a small kitchenette ticked the last boxes on his list.
The agent saw us out.
'It's a bit overpriced,' said my sister, tactfully.
'He wants to get that,' said the agent, dropping her voice to a whisper. 'It's part of a divorce settlement.'
Nothing remained to be said. We got back in the car, and observed a minute's silence. I was no longer in the mood for the hilarious commentary I'd been rehearsing in the house. 'I don't love you any more' is the equivalent of applying RoundUp to the soul.
PostScript. In a currently very hot real estate market in this area, where houses are being snapped up within 24 hours of going on the market, (as my sister's was), this house remains unsold.
My eye was pierced by a sharp leaf. I was bending over in the garden to see if some newly potted little plants had enough water, and suddenly, ouch! a sharp pointed leaf on the bay tree stabbed me right in the eye.
I rubbed my eye and carried on. It was annoying, and it hurt, but I wanted to finish what I was doing. It was half an hour before I went inside and sat down to talk to D about what he'd been doing with the cattle.
'What have you done to your eye?' he said.
'Oh, something stabbed me, that's all.'
He came over to have a closer look.
'It's bleeding,' he said. 'You've got to put pressure on it, and lie down.'
I did as I was told. But how long was this going to go on for? I had a great many things to do, we were going away the next day.
I heard him on the phone, explaining, answering questions. I closed my yes, pressing the pad he'd given me to the injured eye, which I had to own was now hurting quite a bit. He came back in and looked at it carefully, then went back to the phone.
'It's a hematoma, and it's growing. It's about 5 millimetres from the iris.'
Then he came back again to tell me, 'You've got to have it checked out at the hospital. We're meeting the ambulance at Uriarra Crossing.'
I groaned and mentally gave up on the day. We drove up the Brindabella Road, each bump and jerk hurting, but I kept the pressure pack on my eye. I thought about what it would be like to be blind in one eye. How would it change things? Would I still be able to drive? But I was not panicking, or even very frightened. It all seemed far fetched, after all, it was only a bay leaf.
We met the ambulance as we started down the hill towards Canberra.
'Shall I tell them your husband's been knocking you about?' said the well-into-middle-age but extremely nice and competent paramedic who helped me out of the car. It was an inept and ill-judged joke, and he blanched at it when he saw my face. 'Forget I said that,' he offered, and I wondered how long the joke had been in his repertoire for lightening up terrible situations. Perhaps this would be the last time he used it.
Inside the ambulance, he strapped me in, hooked me up to the blood pressure monitor, examined my eye, and gave me a shot of painkillers up the nose, simultaneously taking notes, talking into his radio, talking to his driver, and explaining everything he was doing and everything that was going to happen, while seeming to be calm to the point of laid back. He managed to take a complete history of the eye stabbing event, as well as all the relevant medical history, by way of what felt like an engaging conversation.
If ever there was a place to completely hand over control to someone else, it's the inside of an ambulance. As the Fentonyl kicked in, a little part of my mind was admiring of the training and expertise that enabled him to do his job both so professionally and so amicably, but I was starting to feel like he was going to be my new best friend. Drifting off to sleep, I'd wake up and see his kind face, eyes fixed on me, checking, observing, and I'd tell him things. I told him about the only time I ever had a panic attack. I told him about little G being in hospital last week, and how fearful I'd been. I told him about my hip operation, and how lovely it was to be able to walk without pain again. I told him much more than he needed to know. (But he was probably assessing my mental health as well.) I wanted to hold his hand. I wanted to know his name.
When we got to A and E, he fetched me a wheelchair, and I watched him doing a handover to the nurse. It was a perfect summary of my ramblings, but I did rather wish he'd told her it was a bay leaf that stabbed me, not just any old leaf.
I was put into the Fast Track waiting room, where I stayed for two and a half hours. D arrived, and fetched coffee and what food could be found.
Other people came and went, in an order that was impossible to determine. Many also looked as if they had had busy days rudely interrupted - men in work boots, covered in builder's dust; public servants with their ID cards still round their necks. No one dresses for A and E - it's just the clothes you were standing in when it happened.
Finally, it was my turn. The eye specialist was a young man, who seemed to have done a degree in communication skills as well as optometry, his instructions were so precise and his explanations so clear. The bay leaf had narrowly missed my iris, but scratched the surface of the eyeball, making it bleed. I had to have antibiotic eye drops and cream I was not going to be blind, but my eye would be lurid shades of red, orange and green until at least after Christmas.
D drove us home. I was tired and chastened. It was late, the day was over and everything I'd been going to do still waiting to be done. Somewhere in Canberra, my ambulance driver was on the scene, calming the hysterical, managing the disastrous, and my eye specialist was looking into yet another frightened pair of eyes. I saw my lovely Brindabella world again, through two good eyes. Oh, I am lucky, lucky, lucky!
The garden was the most beautiful it has been. Exuberant and happy, loving the late Spring rain, having been dry through most of October. Plants that had been holding back, diffident about their chances, were now making a run for it, spaces filling up with greenery and flowers tumbling everywhere. Trees were covered in their bright, almost iridescent new leaves. Daisies and poppies waved happily over everything. Bearded iris were being glorious everywhere. Dahlias all up, both new and old. Buds on the roses. Canna lily leaves strong and stately, no longer scared of frost.
The thunder rumbled over in the afternoon, black clouds rolled over the hill tops. It went dark. The clouds burst with torrential rain. The gutters immediately overflowed, and puddles became small lakes in the gravel. The garden steadied itself, drank it in. But then suddenly, hail. Big, hard, ferocious balls of ice, fired from the sky like bullets, bouncing as they hit the ground, thousands and thousands of them, relentless, for a good twenty minutes. I watched it through the bedroom window, terribly anxious, willing it to stop. D. brought the shoes inside, and rescued Bella, who had got confused and didn't know which door to come in.
When it finally stopped, and the thunder and clouds rolled away to cause havoc elsewhere, I went out to have a look. Everything that had been upright and reaching for the sunshine, was flattened to the ground and covered with soil. Petals were bruised, shredded, or simply blown away. Buds broken off. Most of the new leaves on the Persian silk trees gone. Canna lily leaves shredded, as if someone had taken a pair of scissors to them and cut them all up. All the gay purple poppy flowers gone, leaving behind bald stalks sticking up everywhere. New leaves on small new trees now lying in the mud on the ground.
Utterly mysterious how some things appeared completely unaffected. The dahlias, which will succumb at a moment's notice to frost and snails, apparently thought nothing at all of the hail storm from hell. Winter Joy, valerian, pentsemons and salvias, all behaving as if nothing happened. ('Different cellular structure,' said D.) So I counted my blessings, as I always do.
And the glory day of the garden, the day before the storm, has already become defined by its ending. 'I wish you had seen it,' I will say, 'before the hail storm.' Perfection and happiness will once again be known as a memory, and not understood as the living breathing NOW. How lovely it was!
Looking back through an old notebook, I came across this exploration for a new story:
'A frustrated, resentful young mother, determined to have her walk, strides along the beach making New Year resolutions. Something will happen that will prevent her return to her family, something that will both challenge her self-centeredness and drive a much deeper wedge between her and her husband. A life-course changing event. But what? This is just the beginning. All the essential elements are here, but I have absolutely no idea what happens next!'
You can read the complete story that this idea became, 'Choices', on this website. It also forms part of my new short story collection, 'Habits of Silence.'
I long ago dropped the notion that there were complete stories lurking in my imagination if I could only magically bring them into the light. Stories are constructed. They start with an idea, an incident, a scene, a character, and are built up in a way that may be more or less chaotic or organised, until some thing begins to emerge from the material.
My notebooks attest to many many beginnings, that have not, so far, progressed. I seem to be good at them, producing the character, the setting, getting straight into the scene, getting the reader's attention. Here is a recent one, provisionally titled, ''Where do Spirits Go?"
It was my first dead body.
I know that this is supposed to be a significant moment in your life, like the first time you have sex. Or your first overseas trip. (Martin said last night that he went to Mexico on his first trip, and I said Wow! Did he stay in Youth Hostels? And he said, No, you dork, my body was flat on the bed in Manchester, it was my spirit being that went to Mexico.)
The Charge Nurse told me when I got to work.
'Sad news about Mr. Stubbs.'
(He's called Mr. Stubbs because of the way he's always collecting cigarette butts.)
'He died an hour ago at breakfast,' the Charge Nurse went on. "We're still waiting for the doctor to come.'
'Isn't it a bit late for that if he's already dead?' I said.
But the Charge Nurse, who's called Ray Braithwaite and is really nice, said the doctor had to pronounce him dead before we could call the undertakers to come and take the body away. 'Go and have a look at him,' he said. 'He's in Room 2.'
So I did. Room 2 was down the back of the ward, by the back entrance. It wasn't the room Mr. Stubbs had lived in for the last 26 years, but I guess they'd put him there so he could be carried out discreetly. I had such a shock when I pushed the door open. He was completely naked. Just lying on the bed, with his arms at his sides and his toes pointing to the ceiling. I went to the side of the bed and stood looking at him. I was surprised I wasn't scared. More awed really.
His stomach stood up like a huge hill that rose from his chest up a slope to an impossible summit, then fell to the shriveled little mound of jumbled flesh and hair that was his penis and balls. And so much curly black hair! It was thick, all over his chest, and even on his stomach. His thighs too, thick with it. I stared at his skin, it was like looking at a close up photograph, all the pores and marks seemed magnified, and the colours lurid and blotchy like a bad painting.
His face was just nothing. I touched his cheek, it wasn't as cold as I was expecting. But his fat purple lips were never going to ask for another cigarette again. Mr. Stubbs had gone, and left his body behind.
'He was well looked after,' Ray said, when I went back to the nurse's station. 'We've got nothing to be concerned about.' I couldn't stop thinking about it though.
Yesterday, we had had a sort of conversation, Mr. Stubbs and me. I'd gone outside to have a smoke and a bit of peace. Not that there's much peace to be had these days since they'd opened up all the back wards and let the patients wander about at will outside. Mr. Stubbs liked to do the rounds, picking up his butts. He kept them in a tin, which he carried in a plastic shopping bag. When he wasn't picking up butts, he'd be sitting on the wooden seat under the chestnut tree. If he had enough, he'd roll them into a thin cigarette, scrounge a light off someone, and then draw the smoke down, deep as it would go, staring up into the branches of the tree.
'Hey Nurse, got a light?' he called to me as I walked past. He wasn't allowed matches, he'd set too many fires.
So I lit his ciggie for him, and then lit my own,
'Don't wait too long,' he said.
I didn't really know what to say to that, so I sat down next to him. He didn't say anything else though, just concentrated on inhaling, and moving his restless feet up and down. A magpie warbled above us. He can't have had any idea that he'd be dead the next day.
What happens next? I have absolutely no idea!
This is a story about my hair, and how it once came to be a problem.
In the beginning, my hair was not a problem. I had plaits as a child. My mother plaited my hair every morning. I stood between her legs, leaning on her slightly, feeling the gentle tugging of her fingers. Every night, she undid the plaits and brushed my hair. She bought ribbons from the haberdashery that she tied over the elastic bands in pretty bows, and also slides with butterflies and flowers on them that kept the wayward wisps off my face. Between the plaiting in the morning and the unplaiting at night, I didn't have to think about my hair at all.
But one day - I would have been about nine or ten - my mother decided to have my plaits cut off. Perhaps she had grown impatient with the time it took to do my hair. Perhaps she thought I had got too old for plaits. Perhaps she just wanted something to be different, and on a whim fixed on my hair. I can't remember it being discussed.
She took me to a hairdresser in town. There was a considerable sense of occasion about it. I sat up high on the booster cushion so I could see in the mirror. The hairdresser didn't undo my plaits, she cut them off with a huge pair of shears, and then dangled them in front of my face. She and my mother were laughing, my mother rather nervously I think. The hairdresser clearly saw it as a cause for celebration. She must have trimmed what was left of my hair, tidied the ragged ends up somehow, but I don't remember this.
My mother might have said, 'I don't know what her Daddy's going to say!' Something, at any rate, prompted the hairdresser to launch suddenly into a scene which has remained with me vividly to this day. Holding a plait in each hand, she bent close to my face, and whispered, 'When your Daddy comes home, HIDE!' Then, her voice rising dramatically, she went on, 'Hide behind the door! And when he comes in, JUMP OUT, and wave your plaits at him, and say HERE'S SOME FISH FOR YOUR SUPPER!' And she shook the plaits madly at me, her eyes wide and her coarse face shining just like a fish wife's.
What a strange thing it seems now! Did my plaits remind her of a couple of slaughtered plaice, perhaps? Maybe she had a long ago memory of her own, of a father taken off guard at the sight of his newly shorn and suddenly-much-older-looking daughter.
On the bus going home, I clutched the plaits tightly, and told my mother that I was going to do exactly as the hairdresser had suggested. Playing tricks on my father was not normally part of my repertoire; indeed, practical jokes and nasty surprises of any kind were firmly discouraged in my family. But the hairdresser had seemed to carry an authority and wordliness that somehow convinced me that my father would find the joke hilarious, and not, therefore, mind about my hair being cut off. I entirely missed my mother's non-committal, muted response. Perhaps she too was half convinced that the hairdresser's bull-by-the-horns approach was the way to go. At any rate, she didn't tell me not to do it.
I see myself now, hiding behind the lounge door, holding my plaits, holding my breath, my heart thudding in the sudden realisation that what I am about to do is outlandishly out of character, and not funny at all, but it is too late, my father is coming through the door, and I leap out, wildly waving the amputated plaits and shouting bizarrely, 'Here's some fish for your supper!' (We didn't even have 'supper' in our house, it wasn't even a thing.)
I see my father flinching away. He is surprised, but he's not laughing. He takes one of the plaits from me, perhaps he doesn't quite understand what he is seeing. He looks at it strangely, then hands it back to me.
'What have you done?' he says, but already I am too ashamed to respond.
We sit at the table to eat. My father eats in silence, and he doesn't look at me. My mother attempts conversation, then she gives up and we all eat in silence.
So begins five years of conflict and misery over my hair. Not with my father, who passes no further comment on it, ever. But it's as if he started a war and then left the battlefield. For, from this time forward, the sight of my hair seems to set my mother's teeth on edge. She never does my hair again, it's now my responsibility, and my struggle every day becomes, how can I find a way to do it that will take away her frown of disapproval and annoyance? How can I make her like my hair again?
When the day finally came, I had a slight sense of unreality. It all seemed to have taken such long time. A good two years since Finlay Lloyd first committed to publishing a collection of my stories. Months and months of final editing, moulding stories I had imagined finished into even better shape; changing endings; deciding on the order of the stories; deciding which stories to include. To say nothing of the time each individual story had taken, up to ten years in some cases, to get from the day I first put pen to paper with the germ of an idea, to the last few weeks of literally dotting the i's and crossing the t's.
The book was in my hands, a beautiful, dark, silky feel to it, a most evocative cover photograph, and my writing, presented like a gift, substantial and real. Ready for other readers.
The launch was at the National Library, on the Canberra Writers Festival weekend. I bought a new top and new shoes, and had my hair cut. I had asked a lot of friends, but my expectations were low. Perhaps three rows of chairs in the Ferguson Room would be full, I thought. Well, there'd be more champagne to go round.
But friends came from far and wide. People came from interstate, just for the launch. People who had warmly and encouragingly followed my writing ups and downs for years were there, happy to say they always knew that this day would come. People wandered in from the Festival, because they thought my book looked interesting. All my kids, and all their kids, were there. The grandchildren sat cross legged on the floor at the front, smiling up admiringly at their Grandma. It was standing room only.
Julian Davies from Finlay Lloyd warmly introduced the book, and its, by now euphoric, author. John Clanchy did his usual entertaining and insightful commentary on the stories and the writing.
Then I got up to say my heartfelt thank you's, to make a few comments of the particularities of writing short stories, and to read.
'Oh, it's a story!' my youngest grandchild exclaimed, as I started. I read a couple of passages, from Us and Them, and The Man on the Path, and this, for me, was pretty much the best part of all. I've always loved reading aloud, and there are so few opportunities to practice this delightful skill. The pleasure was doubled by it being my own work that I was reading.
Afterwards, I sat and signed books, chatting with friends and well wishers who had ventured their $22 on their faith in my stories. Finally the champagne, the merriment, the buzz of conversation as friends connected with each other and like minds found each other. Old friends not seen for ages were embraced and welcomed, and children ran about with their cousins. Photographs were taken. A bread stick sword fight between two younger cousins was broken up. Everyone was proud and happy, and everyone - rightly - took a little credit.
I wore the yellow party dress, because my sister Jennifer wasn't going to this party.
The dress had been given to Jennifer by our step-grandmother, when she had once taken her to high tea at the Grand Hotel. It was much more beautiful than my own party dress, (which was quite plain, blue satin, with hardly any gathers.) The yellow party dress had layers of fine tulle over the skirt, and very full gathers. It was covered in sequins, with a lovely yellow sash that tied in a bow at the back. It was like the dress of a princess in my Grimm's Fairy Story book.
My mother bought me new ribbons - yellow, with tiny flowers all over them.
The party was in a large bungalow in Trentham. My mother always used to say she wished she lived in a bungalow instead of a semi detached. We didn't know anybody in Trentham, people with money lived there; but we often used to walk to Trentham Gardens for picnics. My mother would look at the lovely houses on the way, with their mock Tudor gables and big glassed in porches. Their gardens trailed prettily over little stone walls next to the pavement, and my mother would nip little pieces off as we walked past. 'It needed pruning anyway,' she'd say, tucking the little green piece into her basket.
On this occasion, we didn't walk; my mother drove me to the party in the car, and left me on the doorstep.
I didn't know another child there. I didn't even know who the party girl was. Perhaps her mother was some distant acquaintance of my mother, and was just trying to get the numbers up.
There were a lot of boys running everywhere. colliding with things, just like in the playground at school. The girls stood fluffing up the skirts of their party dresses - most of them had layers of tulle like mine.
We played Musical Chairs. A tall lady with bright red lipstick arranged the dining room chairs in a row, then sat down to play the piano. The boys stayed really close to the chairs, which wasn't fair, but the grown ups didn't stop them. The girls squealed when the music stopped. I was the first to be out, and I watched the rest of the game wishing I was still in it.
Then we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey. When it was my turn, it seemed as if the world dissolved and all the noise retreated behind the dark, soft scarf. 'Can you still see?' said the lady with the lipstick suspiciously, tugging the scarf tighter. I didn't want to see. I felt invisible, stepping forwards blindly, guided by strange hands. I was very sure I knew exactly where to pin the tail, but then I heard the laughter, and the hands pulled off the scarf, and I saw that I had pinned it ludicrously far away, on the donkey's neck. I stood about again then - there was a lot of standing about, watching. It was all part of having a lovely time.
When it was finally time to eat, we were all called together and trooped into the dining room. We sat at a very large, long table, that was spread with an embroidered cloth, and laid with silver dishes and paper doilies and thick white serviettes. There were tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and little sausages rolls, and jam tarts, and a Victoria sponge. The grown ups passed the food around, and everyone was suddenly quiet and remembered their manners. If you didn't like something, you left it on the side of your plate tidily and didn't complain.
The birthday cake was a Battenberg cake, that I had only ever had before at the Maypole Café on special occasions. When we sang Happy Birthday, I wished that it was my birthday, my cake, and my party. I wished it was my house. My own life seemed suddenly dull. What single thing did I have that could compare to this?
There was one final game before the party finished - Pass the Parcel. We sat cross legged in a circle, and the lipsticked lady sat at the piano again. But how could you have a turn at unwrapping the parcel if the boy sitting next to you wouldn't let it go? And when you finally had it in your hands, the piano continued relentlessly. I watched the paper being torn off again and again, and still it came round and I still had a chance. Then, to my astonishment, it was in my lap, where the boy next to me had furiously hurled it, and the music had stopped. I pulled off the paper, and there was no more paper left. There in my hands was a large box of oranges and lemons - the sugar coated jellies, I should add, but they did not need explanation then. They were really grown up sweets. They had a rind, in a slightly firmer jelly and a slightly darker colour, and they tasted - well, how jellies used to taste, utterly delicious, soft, melt in the mouth, sweet and citrusy. and NOT chewy. This box had a cellophane cover. I could see the sweets arranged in overlapping layers, circles of lemon and orange, dozens and dozens of them.
The children's coats were being fetched, the parents were arriving. I stood holding my box of oranges and lemons, my dress, the house, and everything else forgotten, disbelieving, lost in the wonder of it. I'd never had such luck before. I'd never had a box of sweets like this before.
I remember nothing of leaving the party. But there is a clear flash of memory, of sitting in the back of the car, the box of oranges and lemons on my knee. We are driving home, and I am anxious that this too-good-to-be-true moment will end, that my mother will say, 'Put those away until after dinner,' or 'you'll have to share with Jennifer,' or 'give them to me, they're not suitable for a child.' But she doesn't say any of these things, and I carefully open the box and wonder whether to have an orange or a lemon first. I choose an orange, and it's just as delicious as I knew it would be, and then I choose a lemon.
When we get home, my mother does not take the box off me. She smiles at me, and says, 'Aren't you a lucky girl?' Perhaps she is distracted, perhaps she doesn't realise that there are quite so many sweets in the box. I take it up to my bedroom, and put it in my drawer, and over the next few days, I eat every single one.
We never went to the bungalow in Trentham again, and if I ever saw the little girl whose party it was again, it made no impression at all.
'Ordinary People' in Nazi Germany - The Wish Child, Catherine Chidgey, and The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.
Both these novels explore the lives of 'ordinary ' German families living through the years of WW11.
'The Wish Child', by Catherine Chidgey, published in New Zealand in 2016, has recently won the New Zealand Book Award. I could not help wondering if it was possible there could be another novel that could still find something different to say about Nazi Germany, but Catherine Chidgey achieves this.
We are plunged into a re-telling of the still-too-close, strange but familiar horrors of this time, but the horrors are felt rather than seen. This is a mesmerising, soul shaking book. The prose at times feels like a religious chant, repetitive, sonorous, hypnotic. It carries the reader forward on wave after wave, leaving you beached, breathless, uncertain whether the meaning is quite what it seems to be, but yes, you know it is, it really is. This really did happen.
The story explores the experience of two German families through the war, one living in Berlin, and one on a farm outside Leipzig. The point of view is embedded in the lives of these ordinary people. They are the kind of people of whom we now say smugly, 'How could they have let it happen? How could they not have known?' Both families believe that Germany will win the war, and that the Fruher is protecting them. They long for their past wealth and status to be restored to them, and blame 'the English' and 'foreigners' for Germany's economic woes. They believe in Germany's superiority and specialness. They want Germany to be great again.
Very little of this is explicit, however. We are present with them in their small day to day doings, living their ordinary lives as well as they know how. There is nothing extraordinary, either heroic or evil, about any of it - unless you freeze frame for a moment, and look at what you know to be the context of these peoples' lives, and ask, But what are they actually doing? What does this actually mean? There is a surreal quality to these peoples' lives that is reflected powerfully in the prose. It is as if a template for living 'correctly' has been imposed on them all, and any sense of personal morality excised. Sometimes the book almost felt like science fiction, as if this was some kind of made up world, a dystopia, peopled with beings who looked and behaved to all intents and purposes like human beings, but were missing some vital humanising component.
The story is narrated by the Wish Child - a disembodied entity, who is based on Child K, the first child in Nazi Germany to be officially euthanased. His parents petitioned Hitler to allow them to euthanase their son, who had been born with multiple disabilities. Hitler sent his own doctor to see the child, (who went on to an astonishing career, being responsible for the oversight and actual murder of thousands of people he judged to be less than perfectly Aryan, and was subsequently hanged at Nuremburg.) The Wish Child is an all seeing narrator, but he largely leaves us to form our own judgements and draw our own conclusions. He has a peculiar combination of attributes - the innocence of childhood, the capacity to focus on what he sees rather than what he knows, and a natural affinity for the poetic idiom. This is, in part, what gives the prose its surreal quality, powerfully reflecting the surreal-ness of these peoples' lives.
Time and again I was moved to wonder and tears as I reached the end of a scene of domestic or working life, and the full import, the subtext, the reality of what was really happening, would slowly emerge from the pages as if materialising from a fog. In one scene, Emilie, the mother of Seiglinde, is jealous of her sister-in-law's beautiful samovar. She hears that there is one in an auction to be held in another part of the city, and she and Seiglinde travel there by train. They find the place, it is a private house, everything is to be sold. There is an atmosphere of excitement, the samovar is antique, and much more beautiful than her sister-in-law's. When the bidding starts, Emilie finds herself bidding for lots of things, and she gets the samovar. It is a happy and successful day. Slowly, we begin to think about what Seiglinde's mother does not think - that this house belonged to a Jewish family, these possessions have been stolen from them, the family has been split up and sent away, almost certainly to a concentration camp, and if they have not already been murdered, they soon will be. None of this is explicit, it arises only in the reader's mind, like a phantom, taking slow, grim and unmistakeable shape.
I followed my reading of The Wish Child with Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Somewhat dog-eared, this book has been lying about for a while waiting for my attention. I was interested, emerging from the spell cast by The Wish Child, to see if this novel too could give any fresh insights into the Nazi years.
The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl, Leisel, who is effectively orphaned at the beginning of the war, and sent to live with foster parents in Molking, outside Munich. Through the trauma and deprivations of the war years, she holds on to a sense of identity and self esteem by stealing books, (an act of bravery and rebellion in the savagely book censoring Nazi regime.) and by teaching herself to read. She forms close attachments to a number of people in her life - school friend and fellow thief, Rudy Steiner, the Mayor's wife, the young Jewish man, Max, who her foster parents hide in their basement, and most particularly to her foster father. Almost all are subsequently killed. (I don't know why Zusak leaves it obscure at the end whether the man Leisel marries is actually Max - he treats nothing else in the book this way.)
The narrator of this story is also a disembodied, all-seeing entity - in this case, Death. But unlike in The Wish Child, where the narrator remains an ethereal and ultimately unknowable presence, the character of Death in The Book Thief is developed in a detailed and quite specific way. He has human traits - he gets tired, he gets disappointed, he is curious. Unfortunately, this leads to mounting problems with credibility. Death gathers up souls, for example, gently and carefully, and with great attention to the detail of the death scenes, which often distract him from his purpose. All this in real time. Increasingly, as the war progresses, I was starting to have intrusive thoughts, such as, how has he got time for this? There are probably several hundred thousand people dying today, and he's got no help! By the end, when Zusak writes of Death, 'When I travelled to Sydney and took Leisel away," I laughed out loud, the image of this Death had become a bit absurd.
Despite Death's extremely full on work load during the war years, he has time to observe the detailed day to day developments in Leisel's life. He knows her thoughts, listens to her conversations, muses on her conflicts and motivations. None of this has anything to do with her dying, which she doesn't do until she's an old lady. Why is he hanging about her like this? I kept asking myself. I forgot for long episodes that it was Death who was doing the narrating, and when I was reminded again, it was an uncomfortable and irritating intrusion. Death remains an artificial construct in this story, too developed as a real character to be convincing as Death, and yet not developed enough for us to believe in him or care.
In addition to all this, (oh dear, am I sounding curmudgeonly?), Death strikes a tone which is oddly jocular, by turns sarcastic, sardonic, whimsical, and tongue in cheek. I expect if you are inventing a personality for Death, you can make it what you like, Giving him a somewhat off-the-wall sense of humour has a freshness about it that might have worked better for me had the subject matter not been mass murder, enforced labour, war, terror, starvation, and genocide. Sometimes the tone almost makes it sound as if we are reading a children's book, for example, when Leisel's foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement, Death comments in one of his frequent subtitles, 'The Situation of Hans and Rosa Huberman - Very sticky indeed. In fact, frightfully sticky."
The scenes of bombed buildings, the frightening dashes to air raid shelters in the night, the suspicions of neighbours, the isolation and anxiety of people who were not following Nazi protocols to the letter, the rationing, the gradual falling apart of institutions and decimation of families - all are the standard fare of war stories. Leisel is a brave, plucky, resilient, strong, loyal little girl, and the crushing loss she has to face at the end when Himmel Street is reduced to rubble in a bombing raid, should have moved me.
I have read many stories of such people, their heroism, their rebellions, their resistance to the war and to Hitler's Germany. I am more interested these days to read about the sort of people Catherine Chidgey writes about in The Wish Child . People who didn't hide Jews in their basements, even though they might have been friends or neighbours; people who discovered that they'd really never liked or trusted Jews anyway, and now their feelings were being vindicated; people who took advantage of foreign labour, exploiting desperate people because no one stopped them, and after all they were only trying to put food on their own table, and the foreigners should count themselves lucky to have work at all; people who bought Jewish families' possessions, and like everyone who buys something off the back of a truck at a price that's too good to be true, put their own financial advantage over what they knew was wrong.
We are living now at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many countries. It starts as a bit of harmless flag waving, and a warm sentimental glow on national days of celebration. It is easily exploited by politicians, and quickly grows into something ugly - a collective sense of entitlement, that we are better than others, that our country is better than other countries, or deserves to be, or would be if it wasn't for outsiders/foreigners/immigrants. The us and them mentality is easily triggered; it lies sleeping in all of us, part of our dark side, of a primitive instinct for self preservation which places the self first. It has long been irrational. Taking care of others is demonstrably and almost universally the best way in the end of taking care of ourselves.
We need writers like Catherine Chidgey who are willing to explore the fault lines in these human tendencies, to expose the dark side that can be found in the thoughts and feelings of 'ordinary' people living average lives, you and me, to show us how it can happen that the private grievances and discontents of such people can morph into a collective nightmare of mass murder and persecution, a cataclysm engulfing millions, such as happened in the Nazi years.