June 2015 archive

Arithmetic

Mother Margaret Mary stood in front of the class and handed
back our papers.  One after the other we stepped
forward onto the raised platform where she stood in front of her desk and reached
out from her pile
I knew it would take an age to come to my name.  Mother Margaret Mary went
alphabetically. 
Some kids smiled as they walked back to their desks; others
frowned. 
When she finally called for me, I scraped out from behind my
desk, one where the top was attached to the base and you slid in and out sideways. 
‘I knew you weren’t any good at mental,’ Mother Margaret Mary
said as I reached out to take my test. 
‘But not this bad.’
I had not known I was this bad either. 
I’d tried hard to figure out those numbers, those additions
and subtractions, multiplications and divisions, but my head went fuzzy and it
took me ages to get out one sum after the next.
‘Two out of ten,’ Mother Margaret Mary said. 
She said it in a way that made me feel small.  She said it in away that made me wonder
whether she enjoyed my bad mark.
This was not unusual. 
Mother Margaret had a way of triumphing over our childhood mistakes.
When one of the boys talked to his friend during class when
he should have been silent, she called him out to the front and then took a
ribbon from her desk.  She kept a
collection of ribbons there, ribbons that had fallen from the hair of some careless
girls and been lost.
She took the ribbon and lifted a piece of loose hair from the
boy’s head then tied the ribbon round it in a bow.
Then she ordered the boy to
stand outside of the classroom in the middle of an empty rubbish bin that stood
near the door.  She kept him there for hours.
‘If you act like a girl, you’ll be treated like one.’  That presumably was a reference to Mother
Margaret Mary’s choice of ribbon for his hair, but I never understood the
reference to girl’s behaviour nor the purpose of the rubbish bin, other than to
tell the boy he was nothing more than rubbish.
I didn’t know about humiliation in those days. 
I didn’t know then that some people took pleasure in making
other people who were already vulnerable by virtue of their size or some other
difficulty, feel even more vulnerable.
Years later, when I was at senior school and had grown taller
and begun to realise that maybe I could be good at other things and, although I
was still no good at arithmetic, I could at least count and measure size.
I met Mother Margaret Mary one day at my new school.  She had come with other nuns to visit when
they appointed a new reverend mother.  I saw
her at the back of the chapel.  I swear
she had shrunk.
She looked so much older that I remembered her.  And for the first time in my life it occurred
to me that people can change, and those who wield power over you one day, can
the next, become like the emperor of no clothes.
‘The queen wipes her bum, too,’ my husband once said to me
when I was approaching a meeting that terrified me.
He was trying to give me courage.  And in a strange way it helped. 
Not the sight of the queen on the toilet, but the idea that
Mother Margaret Mary might also have used the toilet and that she, too, had a
body. 
When I was a small child who failed her mental arithmetic test
I had imagined Mother Margaret Mary had no body. 
I had imagined she did not eat, or sleep, or use the toilet
like the rest of us, and that outside of the classroom and staff room she spent
her days in church. 

Once upon a time…

In an hour or so, I will skype an acquaintance whom I met
online and who now lives in New York, about her editing of my manuscript. 
In other words, I will talk to someone on the other side of
the world and we will see one another on the screen as if we are close by and
it will be our first ‘real’ encounter, as face to face as we can get. 
I have a daughter who lives in Japan at the moment and
another visiting Berlin.  I have seen
both of them in the past week on the screen, heard their voices and, although we
have not been able to touch, we have been able to be with one another in ways I
could not have dreamed of as a child except on the Jetsons
Once upon a time, we communicated with our loved ones overseas
in written form  on aerogrammes: thin blue paper with a dark border around
the edge, the image of a plane in one corner, already stamp impregnated on the other top corner at a
cost dependant on its destination and with broken lines around the ends that told you where to
fold, and with sticky bits that jutted out onto rounded corners which you could stick down to form an envelope. 
Such aerogrammes you needed to open with a knife, otherwise
you risked ripping into your beloved one’s written words. 
There were telegrams too, this time on pale yellow paper with
short typed messages that often omitted joining words to cut down on
costs.  
People sent telegrams sent at times of births
and especially deaths and maybe to announce a wedding or to send greetings at a
wedding when the person could not be there. 
When I was a child, my Dutch relatives phoned maybe once a
year, at Christmas time.  
I watched my mother
take up the phone, its black receiver that stood against the wall in the
hallway near to the bathroom. She sounded  breathless
in anticipation and her words in Dutch were halted as if she were measuring
each word out and weighted in gold.  
Ten
dollars a minute these calls cost, or some such ridiculous amount.  It made it hard for anyone to want to speak
and when they did, they reverted to platitudes in their anxiety to reconnect. 
My mother received one such call in Healesville where we
lived for a time.  I watched her pick up
the ringing handset and as if in a movie, she pulled away from the wall when
she heard the news that her mother had died.  
She could not go to the funeral.  She could not say goodbye to her mother.
Could not hold her mother’s cold hard hand when her body was laid out for a
vigil; could not do anything other than imagine her mother’s death and mourn
alone. 
My daughters overseas were devastated that they, too, could not
be here for their cousin’s funeral last week. 
It’s hard work going to a funeral but harder still not being able to
share the family ritual that connects us and helps us to go on living. 
In an hour or so when I connect with the woman in New York
who will help me to think more about my manuscript, I will notice the quickening
tempo of my own speech, because I am nervous and I dislike seeing myself in the
corner of the screen while I am looking at this other person who fills the
screen. 
Depending on the connection quality, colours and shapes will
distort.  We will see one another, but
not as we might were we to meet in person.  Still it’s a good thing at least to see
one another when we speak.
Better than a phone call, though this skype call will
not hold the same terrors as the calls my mother made to her family over fifty
years ago when they rang from Holland. 
Just an optimal level of anxiety.
We will be free to speak as many words as we need to
communicate our respective messages, but still I am nervous. 
It’s like waiting for test results at the doctor’s when you
fear you might have some dreaded disease, or exam results when you fear you might
have failed. 
How will I receive her criticism?  I have told her I do not want to re-write the
whole thing, but I am concerned about its structure, the way it hangs together. 
Structure, that monster. 
It stalks me whenever I write. 
What’s your structure here? 
‘Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that
old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself.  You can no more imagine an Idea without a
Form than a Form without an Idea.’
I greet this quote as the words of authority from a great man,
Flaubert, whose mind was more disciplined than mine, who thought in that
rational well-enunciated way through which scholars think, while I straggle around
the edges, barely able to select one thought over another, to create something
that coheres.
And my skype call to New York awaits. 

                                                        

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