First companions

The year I turned eighteen, I came home one evening to an empty house and felt for the first time a loss of companionship I had never known before.

I clutched my first pay check in my hands from my holiday job with the post office where I lined up with several other students and regular postal employees at the conveyor belt sorting out letters by size and postcode. 

It was a heady job for one who was not good with numbers and took me a while to recognise the four digits that signified the differnt suburbs.

It was a job that lasted less than a month in the rush to Christmas following my final year exams but it was a job that after that first week provided a yellow envelope with a payslip inside and a wad of cash, the largest I had ever seen in one place. And it was mine.

I had earned it and wanted only to share some of it with my mother so that I might join the ranks of my older siblings and be yet another helper in her bid to survive. But my mother was still away at work and my other siblings were out somewhere.

No welcoming party. No one to greet me and I cried furious tears at this moment of triumph when I had no one to celebrate with me. 

Although my siblings were not with me at this moment, I have learned to hold them in mind for all the years since I left home.

They’re always in my mind, milling around, jostling for position, each trying to outdo the other in our judgments. 

My siblings never leave me. Whenever I am part of a group, the people in said group morph into my family and I find myself counting, three, four, seven eight, as long as there are up to nine or eleven including parents we are at full compliment. 

I look around whenever I am in such a numerical group and marvel at how much physical room my family took up when we were all grown and sometimes met. 

I marvel at the space we occupy on the earth.

Much like my mother once said to me soon before she died, how pleased she was when her seventh great-grandchild had arrived on the earth that none of this would be possible without her. 

This puzzled me as if my mother considered it all began with her. As if she had forgotten about her own parents and my father’s parents and the ones who came before. 

I am often in a tug of war in my mind between the great chain of links from one to the other and how important we each are to one another and this other sense, my mother’s sense of wanting to matter and fearing that without her none of us would come into being, me and my siblings, who in my mind, never go away. 

House wife’s curse and hand shoes

My fingers smell of rubber from the gloves I wore yesterday to clean out the toilets and three bathrooms in this house. There’s no one else to clean for me in this time of Covid and so I find myself reverting to earlier days when I took solace from dragging out the disinfectant and bleach, then soaping up the walls of the bath and shower recess to make them shine.

I took the greatest pleasure in stabbing at the black smear of mold that formed in the corners of every shower recess, ignored over time, and I scraped away till it too skipped off in sooty particles. 

Too many years of half-hearted cleaning by someone else means I can never get the bathroom back to its original newness but I can at least create an aura of cleanliness that pleases me in this time of the virus when people are still fearful, though less so in Australia when our daily infection tally is modest compared to elsewhere.

I wear the same rubber gloves when I complete a poo collection around the back garden picking up after the dogs have left their daily offerings. I do this every few days and fill a small bag with shit, a thing that once would have set my stomach roiling but now bothers me very little. 

The rubber gloves of my mind have created a type of immunity to the things that would have upset me in my youth.

I learned it from my mother. A type of stoicism, the sense that it has to be done, so do it. No point in being squeamish. 

When the skin specialist burns off a small spot on my leg that if left unattended could spread into something more sinister, I will watch the procedure. I will fix my eyes on his gloved hands and watch as he takes hold of the blue gun that reminds me of the machine my daughter uses when she blazes a caramelised coating on her crème caramel.

The skin specialist promises it will sting. The sting of the liquid nitrogen on bare skin. A pin prick of pain that lasts as long as he holds the zapper to my leg and then it’s over. 

I watch to harden myself against the pain. I watch to get a sense of what it’s like to watch a person inflict something harsh on another person. All for the greater good.

It would be different if I were in some sado-masochistic dance with a man who drew sexual pleasure out of inflicting pain on me. And I doubt I could do such a thing to myself.

The nurse manager who rang with the results of my biopsy, told me there are three possibilities in treating this Basel Cell carcinoma.

We can cut it out, the most invasive. We can burn it off or we can use an ointment another skin specialist introduced me to several years ago when I had a crazy case of irritation on my lip. A type of chemotherapy that I must apply myself.

I cannot do such a thing, no matter how stout of heart. 

The first dermatologist diagnosed sun damage that could become cancerous. The second, the dermatologist I now attend, described it as a case of both eczema and a fungus dancing around together on my lip and neither was responding to either treatment typically used.

I needed to combine treatments in titrated doses to get the thing clear. It worked, so he’s my dermatologist of choice even during this time of Covid. 

I dislike ringing his rooms though. These days, the message on his answer machine takes a good three minutes to listen through.

The usual drill: ‘If you have a fever, sore throat or any other such symptom cancel your appointment with the dermatologist and seek help from your GP. Do not come here.’

No one wants you if there’s a risk you have the virus. But if you’re virus free you’re welcome.

This accursed virus.

A friend wondered recently how much rubber we will add to landfill with all these gloves rotting in the ground, no longer simply the terrain of skin doctors and surgeons, of hairdressers and beauty therapists or people who need to protect themselves and others from whatever else might attach to their hands.

In German, the word for gloves translates into hand shoes. I enjoy the play on words. The play on ideas. The need to keep flexible at this time of inflexibility whereby every person fears every other stranger and even those we know well we must keep at arm’s length.

We can touch only through rubber gloves and even then, we must not breathe in our shared air for fear of contamination.

I watch movies from years gone by and have this urge to admonish the characters on the screen for standing too close together as if those days then are these days now.

I’ve taken to wearing gloves in winter as I grow older and feel the cold more. When the part of skin visible, the hands and face must be covered for protection from cold, let alone from viruses. At least the wool and leather gloves I wear do not leave a stink on my fingers that hangs around for hours. 

Another dermatologist I saw years ago when I was pregnant with my third child and developed a case of eczema on my hands – ‘housewife’s curse’ he called it – advised me to soak my hands daily for ten minutes in Pinetarsol. The medical smell of pine forests, alcohol and something aromatic stays with me in the same nauseous way as I felt in the early days of that pregnancy.

He also advised me to wear white cotton gloves underneath the rubber gloves for wet jobs and cotton gloves alone for when I swept floors and dusted. 

How many men get housewife’s curse from too much housework? Not many I imagine though my male hairdresser gets eczema from all the chemicals he handles. 

My poor beloved hands. Hands that have seen many surfaces, touched many textures, rough, silky, cold, or hot, burns and scalds and cuts, a life time’s collection all rolled into one set of hands with their time lines etched on the palms for any clairvoyant to read one day and catch me out for all the times I failed to wear proper gloves.