An antidote to violence

My desk is a mess of distractions. To one side a tub of Yoplait yoghurt, from a company which – so the label tells me – arrived in Australia in 1982, the year my first daughter was born.

Yoghurt was still a foreign substance then, before it became a dietary staple. My typical breakfast.

My eyes then settle on a newspaper article I cut out of The Age last week, a report that every day last year 238 women were killed across the globe. This number narrows down to six women every hour.

The article does not make comparisons with the number of men killed each day but observes that 58 per cent of those female deaths occurred at the hands of an intimate partner or relative.

I expect many of the men killed would be killed by others, not an intimate partner, but you never know.

I doubt any one has made a comparison. Why bother?

We all know about family violence, one of my preoccupations these days given a childhood under its shadow, though in my childhood we thought such murderous behaviour on the part of our menfolk was the norm.

When I was a young social worker starting out in the world of families and the troubles they encountered, the question ‘Is your father violent?’ was commonplace.

Violence is a marker of something more pressing. I suppose because too many people die at the pointy end of it.

Further away in the back of my mind I have half an ear cocked for the sounds of the puppy chewing on something unacceptable down the hallway.

I’m on puppy duty this morning, as I have been these past few weeks since the arrival into our household of Tilly, the labradoodle. I’d never have thought we’d come into possession of such a dog.

She’s belongs to our daughter who sees a value in the company of such animals that many of us lack.

Strangely these past several weeks I’ve found myself feeling soothed by the presence of this small fleece covered creature, who reminds me of my childhood dog, Peta.

Peta came home one day after she had followed one of my brothers after school to our back door, and she stayed.

It was hard convincing our dad this dog should stay, which legend has it was the reason we called her Peta. Peta with an ‘a’, to trick our father into thinking she was a boy.

Several litters of puppies later and my father knew the truth, but by then Peta was established as part of our family. At night, she slept in the woodshed.

A couple of women who lived up the road together in a tiny Victorian cottage, worried every time they saw our sleek Peta chase another car up or down Wentworth Avenue. They offered to take on Peta’s care and agreed to pay the cost of her de-sexing, so that my parents, most especially my mother, would be spared the agonies of what to do with yet another littler of unwanted pups.

My mother reckoned it was more humane to give Peta away and have her neutered. Too many babies could kill her.

This at a time when my mother secretly went to the parish priest and asked his permission to go onto the contraceptive bill. She had just given birth to her eleventh child, a still born daughter, at 43 years of age and was worried that if she fell pregnant yet again, it could kill her.

I don’t know whether the priest gave his permission, but through the fog of my memory, I can see a contraceptive pill packet on my mother’s dressing table and so I believe she decided her life was worth preserving.

I have no memory of what happened to Peta’s puppies only a sense they disappeared soon after birth. I did not understand the responsibility of a pet ownership back then. Not many did.

Dogs and cats roamed the neighbourhood and many travelled collar-free even though they clearly had homes.

Not like today, when you see a dog on the street without a lead and you know to stop and render assistance.

A dog on its own in the suburbs of Melbourne is a dog who has escaped its confines and needs rescuing. A dog who might otherwise be in trouble.

The traffic whizzes by on Riversdale Road and no dog has a hope unless it’s on a lead or has been trained to stay off roads.

Hopefully this puppy will learn to know the difference between a road and a footpath and soon.

I can feel my eyes dropping. It’s been three weeks of six o-clock starts almost every day and it takes its toll. I need a kip.

Like the puppy spread out on the cool bathroom tiles after a hot night, I’ll just go off to doze a while and then have energy enough for the rest of the day.

And energy enough to tidy my desk.

Eleanor Oliphant is me

The trouble with life as a writer the search for narrative intensity -the desire to turn every event into a story with a beginning, middle and end, but also to include an ascending arc that brings in the wow factor and can make people’s jaws drop open – is never ending.

I sit at dinner with my three sisters and all I want is to plunge into the past, to explore what it was like when we four were young and reflect on the things that made us into who we are today.

But tonight they’re not so inclined. We talk instead about our careers, our children and grandchildren. We talk about their travels and the places in which we live today.

I try to stop myself from slipping into boredom and watch other people in the restaurant, one of those cheap and cheerful Italian pizza joints in St Kilda near the beach, where the waiter is kindly and I can see the way he looks at us, as if we are a group of old biddies and it takes an effort to be friendly because we are generations out of his reach and he’s not interested in the ticking of our minds, much as I might be curious about his.

I sit face out to the restaurant and there’s an archway between the two rooms and steps on either side that lead into a third larger room. As people walk down the steps and into our room they appear to arrive in twins and yet when they materialise at the door of the restaurant there is only one.

It bothers me and so I go to check out this optical illusion and, in the process, catch the eye of a young woman who is looking towards our table.

I take myself off to the stairs in search of what one sister tells me is a mirror at the top of the stairs that must be causing the illusion and the young woman approaches the table in my absence.

She offers cards to my sisters and from the top of the stairs I can get a full view of the restaurant and its mock chianti style bottles with candle wax dripping and gingham table cloths and garlic hanging from the walls.

I find the mirror further back at the top of the stair. It fills an entire wall of the walkway between the two rooms and creates the illusion whenever someone walks through, there are two, the mirror image that arrives first when you’re seated down below and the actual person who appears next on the stars.

Back at our table the young woman has left my sisters alone alone and taken back her cards.

‘She was deaf,’ one sister says ‘The cards give the directions for signing. Asking price $5.00.’

No one takes up her offer.

After she’s gone, we speculate on the nature of begging and the fact that the streets are filled with homeless people.

‘How sad,’ we say, and then go through the trite polite platitudes of people who are privileged and caught up in our own lives to the point we don’t give a damn.

I tell my sisters about Eleanor Oliphant, a fictional character whom I have come to love as if she is a real person who walks the streets of somewhere in Scotland.

Someone, I might meet one day.

 Eleanor Oliphant is the fictional creation of Gail Honeyman, first time novelist and a youngish woman by the look of her picture on the back cover of my copy.

Eleanor Oliphant is a person who tells no lies. And even as a naive and seemingly innocent person she remains inscrutable to all those with whom she works in some boring office in the middle of town. She can be acid sharp in her thinking and her observations of her colleagues.

Given she has not mastered the art of politeness in any conventional sense and is not friendly towards people but prefers her own company, she is slow to form relationships but over the course of the book we meet Raymond, an ungainly man whose eating manners are appalling and who lives alone, like Eleanor, but he has a mother whom he visits regularly and although it can be a trial, we get the impression he loves his mother and she loves him.

The two come together over an old man Sam who collapses in the street and Raymond does the right thing by organising an ambulance and with Eleanor’s help gets Sam into hospital.

Eleanor tags along and over time begins to connect with Sam and his family and with Raymond. The story goes on from there.

Eleanor Oliphant does not know about love. Images trickle in early in the book where we come to understand something of the cruel relationship, she has with a mother whose sharp tongue and brutality leave us gasping.

And Eleanor Oliphant must speak to her mother every Wednesday night whether she likes it or not, her mother who is unable to visit in person for reasons that also become clear early in the book. And then even clearer at the end.

This story of a young woman’s life is a page turner, one I cannot stop admiring because Eleanor Oliphant, as fictional as she is, enters into the realm of real life in my head as a representative of so many people who exist in this world who have been traumatised and who cannot engage with others in the way they might otherwise.

I sense an Eleanor Oliphant in my own bones, even though I have worked out how to relate to people. I am polite and can be spontaneous but underneath in my writer’s head I can think all the harsh things about people that Eleanor Oliphant thinks, all the crude criticisms of other people’s foibles, including their appearance.

As if my writerly sensibilities give me permission to stand outside of myself and observe. But like Eleanor Oliphant I am not so good at seeing myself in this process.

I am not so good at seeing how I might appear to others, though I get hints from time to time and more so in recent years since I passed the age of fifty that I have joined the group of invisible people, the characters who stand to one side of the principle actors in any movie, the cast of thousands who must stand around looking as if they are simply going about their business without so much as a passing glance at the actors at the centre on whom all the lights and sound recording equipment are focussed. One of the many expendable people who flank the footpath as the actors go through their lines.

A blimp on the wall paper of life in a movie and although I dislike this position it also offers a level of anonymity that, as it is for Eleanor Oliphant, offers a point from which to observe. But unlike Eleanor Oliphant who goes home each weekend to drink vodka until she is blind, I go home to write about my observations, and it offers a type of blindness to my own peculiarities and also a safe place in which to hide the actuality of what it’s like to be alive these days in my body and mind.