May 2016 archive

The best year of my life

In the year I turned seventeen, my mother left my father again and this time their separation lasted an entire year.

We were used to weekends away during which my father binged to the point of eruption.

It began on Friday nights when he came home from his work in the city night with not one brown paper bag but two or three, a bottle of brandy per bag and he proceeded to drink them all one after the other until he became alternatively comatose or volcanic with rage.

By Saturday morning it wasn’t safe to stay and my mother bundled the last of us who lived at home, my younger sisters, brother and me onto the bus and we took off to Ivanhoe to stay with an uncle and his family or to Brighton to spend the weekend with another uncle.

Once my other brothers were old enough we might go to stay with one of them, but only for the weekend.  Rarely did it lapse into the week though there were times when my father extended his bender, beginning earlier in the week, missing work and forcing us out before the weekend had even begun.

For all these reasons, my second oldest brother who by then showed the makings of a successful businessman, with a wife, children and home of his own, organised for my mother to rent a house on the beach so we could stay away for good.

I think of this year, my final year at school, as the best year of my life.

We lived away from my father, so things were predictable. We had next to no money; I was used to that, but we could sit up late at night in the kitchen or living area and read or talk or listen to music without any fear.

My mother had told me she married our father because he looked marvellous in his uniform, as if these things mattered to her. She mattered to him more it seemed in so far as he had agreed to become Catholic to marry her and went through hours of religious instruction to pass the tests necessary before baptism.

He proved himself that way at least, but even in their early days, my mother described times when he would become moody, when he refused to speak to her for days. She’d done something wrong she could tell, but he did not say what and she had no idea what caused the distance and subsequent cruelty.

You couldn’t have known what was to come from their wedding day.

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As Alain de Botton argues, we need to be pessimistic when it comes to our choice of partners. My parents were no exception.

Whenever I see YouTube clips about domestic violence, stories that warn people of the tell tale signs, the possessiveness, the wish to isolate a partner from her supports, the slow insidious march of invective that stirs up within the abuser who in time comes to undermine everything his partner stands for, I think of my mother.

I have no memories of my father speaking to my mother in anything other than the negative. She was dumb and stupid, a whore, a terrible cook, a worthless piece of junk. His insults were endless and predictable to the point my mother believed them.

Perhaps that is why she went back to my father time and again. Perhaps that’s all she thought she was worth. Perhaps even after we had lived in the house by the sea for many months and she took the bus to her work along warrigal Road and saw our father in the front garden watering his plants she forgot his past cruelties and her heart rushed out to him.

He had lost weight she told me, as if to justify her nightly visits while the rest of us slept. When unbeknown to us she took taxis all the way back to our family home to visit our father who by then had sworn off drinking – again.

My mother lost weight, too. The two of them, slowly disappearing without one another and yet we all knew and perhaps she did too, should she go back to our father and drag the rest of us still living at home along with her it would only be a matter of time before his benders began again.

A miracle she said whenever our father was able to stop drinking for more than a week or two, a miracle a sign from God that all would be well now. My father had changed. He would no longer hurt us or criticise her or give us grief. He was a changed man.

It never lasted until that last stretch when only one child was left at home. It was only after all the children were gone that my father was able to give up drinking altogether and only then five years before he died.

Was it our fault he drank? He said as much often, nine bloody children, as if we had appeared on his doorstep like a load of debt that someone else had run up against his name.

As if it had nothing to do with him.

An experiment in second person

The air was thick with the smell of paint but you didn’t complain. If anything you enjoyed the newness that came with white walls and the chemical pong of freshly laid lino.

The floor boards gleamed with varnish enough to act as mirrors and you thought for the first time ever you might be able to invite one of your school friends into this house, if only during the day when your father was not drinking.

The filth of the old house fell away and you began to take pride in wiping down the benches after breakfast each morning.

At night you looked out of the window above your bed and tried to imagine you were living in some foreign country closer to the equator than here in Cheltenham on a busy main road in the new AV Jennings estate where every house matched its partner in all but number.

By then you were the oldest child living at home, so you had first choice. You took the bed closest to the window and your younger sister was happy to look across to the sky from her bed on the other side. The two of you took turns to be the last to say goodnight in an interminable game of who’d be the last to speak, and although your father had told you to leave the venetian blinds alone, only to open them in the morning and to close them at night using the cord that adjusted the light, ever since your arrival you’ve pulled the blind up to the top of the window frame so that you and your sister could both get a complete view of the night sky from this large window that was nothing like the windows from the houses in which you’d lived in the past.

These old houses blocked out the light with tiny windows that were designed to minimise heat loss, but here in Cheltenham when people no longer feared the cold and heat so much as they did when your parents first arrived from Europe, you could have windows that took up whole half walls and more.

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For weeks the ritual of going to bed, of raising the blinds, of staring at the night sky until your eyes grew heavy and you fell asleep was your favourite activity until one morning at breakfast when your father decided to check on your room. Not so much to see whether you had made your beds – your father never seemed troubled by such things – but to see whether you’d done as you were told.

Most mornings you remembered to put the blind to rights before you left your bedroom for breakfast but on this morning, an autumn morning when the weather was beginning to turn, your father asked,

‘Which one of you pulled up the blind last night?’ His face was frozen over as if just a few inches under the surface of his skin an army of soldiers were gearing up for attack.

Your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth.

‘Why shouldn’t we fix our blind any way we want?’ your sister said to your father in a voice that stunned you for its audacity.

Your father grabbed your sister by the head and threw her against wall with all the force of his army and she let out a cry.

He let her loose and she slumped into a chair while he turned and walked back to the lounge room to his favourite seat by the fire and you looked at your sister and worried about brain damage from the force of the blow.

Your sister began to cry then, quiet tears and you felt like George Pell on the third day of the hearing into child sexual abide.

You could not take responsibility for your crime.

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