The stink of summer

A woman fell over in Ikea yesterday, a Moslem woman in a
scarf with a long skirt and wide coat. She had been pushing one of those stub
Ikea trolleys and must have lost her grip on it because there she was on the
floor below the first flight of stairs on the mezzanine crying out in
pain.  She had hurt her leg.  I offered to help, my son in law
offered to lift her but no, she had hurt her ankle and did not want to move. 
An Ikea attendant dressed from top to toe in butter yellow
came to her rescue and we moved on. ‘These stairs are a health hazard,’ I
said.  ‘It’s a wonder people don’t
fall all the time.  The banisters
are too short.’  
Last night at dinner with a small group of old friends we
talked about installing a banister along the walkway into the garden of one of
our friends, who is ill, seriously ill, soon to die.   
But the banister was not so much for
him, he said, as for other friends who visit, some elderly, some unwell, but all
of whom are vulnerable to falling when they walk onto the uneven footpath that
gives access to his house.
Memories return:
The banister that leads down the five or six short steps
onto the concrete path that takes you to the change rooms of the swimming pool
in Camberwell is made of steel, round and cold to touch. It bends to accommodate the slope of
the ground as it moves down the hill beside the pool onto the entrance to the
change rooms. 
The change rooms themselves are underneath the pool.  In the corners of the shower recess
there are long green slimy marks from the constant dripping which I imagine is
the swimming pool slowly leaking into the earth beneath.  The change rooms also stink of
chlorine.  Chlorine is the smell of
summer.
The water at the swimming pool is the bluest of blues.  I do not realise until adulthood that
its colour arises from the colour of the tiles that line its surface.  I had thought as a child it must come
from the stuff that is added to the water, the stuff that gives the water its
peculiar stink, a stink that stays on my skin long after I have returned home
from the pool.   The stink of
summer.
Summer is also the freedom of swimming, an escape from my
father.  He does not swim.  He has diabetes and must take care of
his feet.  He will not go to the
beach for the same reason. 
There could be strange things in the sand, broken bits of
glass, the sharp edge of an abandoned tin can that could cut his feet and if
his feet get cut, he bleeds and if he bleeds from his feet something happens to
his circulation and he could wind up with gangrene and they might chop off his legs. 
How I wish they would chop off his legs, then he would not
be able to walk.  In a wheelchair
he could not visit us in the night. 
My sickly friend from the dinner party last night talked
about death, the need to pay attention. 
He has gone from a round corpulent fellow to a grey shadow
of himself, thin and wan.  He
spends eighteen hours a week on dialysis and cannot drink liquid except in the
form of ice to go with his whiskey. He does not pee anymore he tells me and I
wonder about this.   
Not to pee any
more, not to feel the trickle pass from inside and out into the toilet or for
him against the urinal wall, a strange loss, a loss greater even than the loss
of blood through menopause.
In the change rooms of the swimming pool I notice my first
pubic hairs sprouting there below the V bone above my legs and I fear that
something terrible is happening to me. 
I have not taken in the sight of my mother’s naked body if I have ever seen
it or of my older sister’s and have no idea that such things might happen to me.
My childhood fantasy is that death belongs only to the elderly, those older than me, but not to me.  At the swimming pool I use the silver
steel of the banister as a monkey bar and hang upside down to see the earth
underneath my head.  I do this
repeatedly until my hand slips and I am on the ground with a crash. 
I feel it in my shoulder, the sharp pain that signifies a
broken bone or some other internal damage but I do not tell the pool
people.  Not until I get home do I
complain of the pain to my mother. 
This is a mistake. 
My mother tells my father.  My father goes to examine me.  We do not use doctors in our
house.  Our father sees himself as
the resident medical expert. The worst of it is when he bandages my chest round
and round like a mummy. 
I am ten years old without breasts to speak of but I know
that soon they will be here and my body feels taboo.  Yet
like a parcel handler, my father bandages me up, ready for postage.  
And the woman from Ikea, how is she now?  

You cannot trust her

A cousin of mine has died.  I did not know him well.  The last time I saw him we were
children.  My mother stays in touch
with his parents but we cousins have lost all contact.  He was living in Queensland but I know
nothing else at this stage other than that he was dead for four days before
they found him and the police said there were no suspicious circumstances, or
words to that effect.  He died of
natural cases. 

To me there is something
horrendous about the idea of dying alone, not so much the fact of dying itself
but of being left unburied or non-cremated, left unattended after death.   To be found eventually in a state
of decay. 
I once wrote a short story about
this, in the early days when I first began to tackle the short story form and
made the mistake of giving it to my husband to read.  He was furious with me after he had
read the story because to him it lacked any redeeming features and disturbed him too much.
It was a good lesson for me in that
I stopped asking my husband to read my writing in early drafts.  People talk about the need to have your
‘best’ reader for early drafts of your writing, someone whom you can trust to
be honest about the writing, someone able to make constructive suggestions
about how to improve it, not someone who will undermine your efforts, or, almost
worse still, someone who will praise your writing to the heavens without
observing how and whether the piece is working.
I have a couple of friends to whom
I send early drafts of my writing, one to whom I send fiction, another to whom
I send my more non-fictional efforts. 
Both approach the task in different ways.
First up though, I call on my upon reader
self.  She is unreliable.  I
cannot trust her.  As much as I cannot trust our former dog – the one we call the bronze heeler.  He offers nothing other than an image of the real thing.

Doubtless, you’ve heard the
expression: ‘murder your darlings’? 
It’s hard to murder your darlings without an accomplice, someone who
will tell you what darlings need to be killed off.  On my own I am not good at detecting such perils in my
writing.  My darlings seduce me
into thinking they should stay.  I should
spare them, if not for now, then for later.
 I read recently that someone has decided to promote October
as the month in which you only buy what you need month.  For some reason this notion appeals to
me.  The idea is that every time
you go to make a purchase in October you ask yourself the question: Do I really
need this?  And if you do not, then you return the item to the shelves. 
If I could apply the same principle
to my writing, I might never create the darlings I would later need to kill off.
 On the other hand, for a writer
not to allow whatever emerges to creep onto the page might be problematic.  It’s better to have darlings to kill off than to have nothing at all. 

And here again I think of my cousin, gone now.  I do not know whether he had a family of his own beyond his family of origin.  I only know that at the time of his death he was isolated and perhaps all too easily forgotten.   

Among her seventy two reasons why writers
write, Margaret Atwood includes one about memorialising the past.  It’s our way of keeping on going after
we are gone, in the written word. 
The trouble is so many of our words will get buried under the weight of
the world’s words.  
Given that the Internet never forgets, these words could be a tribute to my unnamed cousin.  I hope someone somewhere cares enough to remember him better than I can here.