February 2015 archive

No need for possessions

It wasn’t everyday I went out for an extravagant lunch, but on
this day I went with a group from my department to lift morale, and Sean came,
too.  Despite the call for cheer,
everyone clock watched.  Everyone ordered
fast and ate quickly in time to get back to work within the allocated hour but
Sean and I moved slowly over our meals and conversation.  One by one my colleagues left and by the time
they’d all gone, Sean and I were left alone.
‘How about it?’ Sean said.  His eyes raised, his lips moist.
I thrilled at the thought of such
unspeakable behaviour, the stuff of novels, and fell in.  We booked a room in a hotel over the road
from the shrine.  I even paid the
bill.  Why should the man always pay for
the woman? I reasoned.
‘Possessions,’ Sean told me, ‘weigh
you down.  It’s better to live with
little more than the clothes in your suitcase.’
 
Sean and his partner lived like this he told me as we peeled off our
clothes and I wondered what she might have thought about my taking possession
of her man on this crisp autumn day near the shrine on St Kilda Road where the
ghosts of soldiers long dead once gathered. 
It was a small room in a low cost
hotel with only a view of the sides of office buildings but the sheets were
crisp and clean and privacy was guaranteed. 
He bedded me without ceremony.  In those days I operated on remote control
much of the time, a woman disappointed in her relationships, and in her chosen
career as a social worker; a woman who had wanted to help people but found
herself in need of help instead.  I did
not know this at the time. At the time I thought only of how wicked I had
become and what excuses I could offer back at work.
Nina, the deputy social worker,
called me into her office the next day, not long after I had arrived, a little
less bold than the day before when I made the decision to leave a message with
the secretary to say I’d fallen ill after lunch and would not be in for the
rest of the day.
‘You can’t do things like that,’ Nina
said.  She did not buy the line I had
been ill the day before.  She’d been with
us at lunch.  She’d seen me stay behind
with Sean.  He also failed to return to
work, but she was too polite to put two and two together, other than to tell me,
it must not happen again. 
Within a week, I resigned my job at
the hospital.  Not because of Nina or
Sean or that stolen afternoon but because I could no longer tolerate the idea
of being a handmaiden to the doctors who saw social workers as their secretarial
assistants in matters of health benefits and first port of call on where to go after
discharge when a person is too old or frail to go home alone.  This was not what I had studied for.
As for Sean, I never saw him again,
but his name popped up ten years later when a Commonwealth policeman knocked on
my door. 
‘Do you know a Sean McCloud?’ he
asked.  I nodded my head and he told me
the story.  For the several years now, they
had been investigating a certain Peter Hill, alias Sean McCloud, wanted by the
Canadian police for extortion.  Interpol
were on the lookout and they had contacted Sean’s ex-colleagues. 
‘Did you know he was not a qualified social
worker?’ the policeman asked.  I shook my
head.  
Sean was an imposter who took on
professional disguises wherever he travelled as a way of funding his life style,
the policeman told me.  He lived off the
largesse of others.  He took possession
of their possessions and left them wondering.

I want it now

My Dutch grandmother, a woman of scruples, a woman who held
fast to her religious beliefs even under pressure, kept camphor balls in her apron pockets during
her pregnancies. 

An uncle told me this recently, when I visited him in his
retirement home, this uncle, my mother’s younger brother, and one of the only two
left now of my mother’s large sib ship of seven. 
I had read a short memoir of his childhood, and somewhere the
words: 
‘The unusual habits of mother during her pregnancy,
especially in her choice of food, made her vitamin deficient and could have
given her children a form of rickets as our dentist pointed out.’ 
I was curious, and asked my uncle about his mother’s strange
eating habits and he talked about the lack of vitamin D from the harsh long
winters in Holland and how his mother fed her family cod liver oil.  

He did not mention her eating habits, only
this peculiarity. 

My uncle described how from time to time, as his mother went
about her housework duties, she dipped her hand into her pockets and pulled out a
camphor ball.  Then she put it to her
nose and breathed in deeply, as if from a snuff box, but only when she was pregnant,
my uncle told me, and only when she had those strange cravings that pregnant women can
have, not otherwise. 
It seemed an odd habit for a woman of scruples, a woman whose
religious observances bordered on the extreme. 
Mass every day even in the snow and cold and the rosary every
night.  
She was an expert at self-denial.
Self-denial takes practice.  
I remember when I first decided to get a grip on my television watching
as a thirteen year old.  I sat in the
classroom and the Latin teacher, Mother Eleanor, was going on about the
importance of learning our verbs.  About
the importance of putting aside time every night to practise them. 
I pitched myself in my mind to the end of the day.  I saw myself come home.  I saw myself go into the kitchen and spread at
least four slices of bread with margarine and jam, then I went to the lounge
room where my brothers were already stuck in front of the television and I
joined them. 
I put my sandwiches on the arm of my chair and eat sandwich
after sandwich as first Bugs Bunny, followed by the likes of Daniel Boone or
Robin Hood flashed across the screen.  Then
my father came home and I bolted, along with everyone else, no longer hungry
for dinner, no longer keen on sitting together as a family, but having to go
through the dinner ritual regardless. 

During the Latin lesson that day I decided I would stop
watching television.  I would give myself
time from the moment I came home to do my homework and then I would get good at
Latin. 
I would deny myself for a greater good.
They’ve done experiments with small children where they sit each
child in front of a lolly and tell them that if they can resist taking that
lolly for five minutes – not sure exactly how long, but about five minutes –
then they can have two. 
The researchers do this test to demonstrate the development of
impulse control and of will power.    
Some kids can do it.  They can hold out for the greater reward but others
cannot.  They want it now. 
When I shop with my husband for some item that is of
significant value, a new chest of drawers for instance, or a computer upgrade
or some such thing, he likes to look, to compare, to consider and then to go home empty
handed, with the intention of returning the next day or the day after that once
he’s satisfied this is the best thing to buy. 
Me.  I see it.  I examine it and think about it.  I reckon it’s okay.  Enough value for money, a good quality
product, it will do the job.  I want it
now.  Why wait till tomorrow or the next
day to buy it when we agree we need it and can have it now?
In this way we are different. 
But over the years I have noticed some of my husband’s caution has crept
into me and some of my impulsiveness erupts from him.  Just some. 
My husband is still a great one for window-shopping.  It’s nothing for him to go off to a farmer’s
market and come home with some small token, a bunch of radishes for instance,
whereas if I were to go to said farmer’s market I’d feel almost compelled to
buy stuff we might not need, stuff that interests me perhaps, expensive butter
from nearby farms, venison from a local supplier.  We might eat it eventually but we do not need
it. 
I will want to buy something for our children, too, but my husband is happy to feast his eyes on
the displays and come home empty handed. 
And then I get to another part of my uncle’s memoir where he
talks about his mother’s response to the fact that five of her seven children
left home as young adults to live far away in Australia, in New Guinea and in Brazil.

‘Every time somebody leaves, it takes away a piece of my
heart,’ my Dutch grandmother said.  And no amount of
scruples, impulse control or camphor ball sniffing can stop her heart from
breaking.   

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