On not being alone

When I visited my analyst, as I did almost daily over twenty years ago now, I never failed to speak to her from the moment I rested my head on her pillow and closed my eyes.

It was exquisite, this chance to slip into the recesses of my mind and dredge up whatever thoughts assailed me. Most often to do with things that bugged me, about this person or another, this situation, or even about Mrs Milanova herself. 

Whether I complained about the frequency of her times away, her failure to understand something I said to her the day before, something I wanted her to understand more fully; or her occasional silences when I wanted noise, or her noisiness when I wanted silence.

Through our talks I learned how to tolerate the differences between me and those not me.

Mrs Milanova helped me to think for myself. She helped me to overcome the sense I’d held from my childhood that I was not a person who could use her mind to understand things, that I could only rote learn and repeat the things that others had taught me.

It’s spring again and when I walk the dogs, the scent of jasmine hits me. The confetti of white petals strewn over footpaths far and wide and the pink fairy floss of blossoms still sitting on their trees ready to drop at the first wind help me mark the season. 

We have a crowded house this week. Many of my children, at least three and two of their partners, are staying over and every bed is occupied.

The dogs are unsettled and the cats have already brought in their first spring time mouse, a big one I rescued from the puppy’s jaws, after the cats had abandoned it. 

I don’t sleep well when the house is full, but when the house is empty, which is yet to come – when most of my lot go away on holidays to Bali and I’m left home alone – it’s a different experience altogether.

There was a time many years ago before the onset of my analysis when to be home alone was almost unthinkable.

A terror set inside me at the thought. The residue of that terror remains but it’s not as acute. 

Why is it I can feel safer with only one other person in the house, one other person who might be a small child?

Why is it that the presence of another person at night in the house offers a comfort and companionship that makes it easy for me to drift off to sleep, while the thought of being in the house alone, even with the company  of two dogs can, can leave me feeling a nameless dread?  

Fear of the unknown seeps through the walls or under the window cracks. 

I leave on lights in the back garden so I can look out into the dark corners where some of my fears lurk. The strangers in the bushes who will evaporate if I they have nowhere to hide.

I keep the telephone by my bed and rehearse the number for the local police or at worst, triple zero in case of emergency. 

None of these things matter to me when there is at least one other living person in the house.

In a conversation with Mrs Milanova many years ago, I told her about my favourite number two or multiples of two, as in 22 and even 222. 

‘Two represents the couple,’ she said, ever the wise one and I brought her interpretation. 

It sang to me of my wish to be with at least one other, and preferably only one, other. I can form part of a group well enough, to deal with the cross currents, but one-on-one is so much better.

Better than the aloneness that comes of being surrounded by people, or the total absence of others.

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s birth. She would have turned one hundred. She wanted to reach this milestone but fell five years short on her death. She wanted the big party with everyone present, akin to the party she held for ninetieth. She had even planned to have a birthday bash on her 95th, but death got in first.

I’m not a believer so I don’t imagine I’m ever going to meet her again in the big blue yonder. I only imagine I will see her in my dreams where she often re-visits, or in the recesses of my mind where I can catch a glimpse of her. 

How she preened when people told her she had magnificent skin for a woman of her age.

How she grinned when people admired her youthfulness even into her nineties. They reckoned she could not be older than seventy. 

These days, even when I look in the mirror and see my face with her superimposed, I look more like her, though I will never share my mother’s round pixie face and her chubby smooth cheeks. 

My mother exuded vanity whenever the camera was trained on her and she pursed her lips into a movie star smile and her eyes glazed over as if she was photoshopping herself. 

At other times at home, she lolled about in her nylon pink dressing gown with buttons missing and worn out in patches; a cigarette in her hand. Maybe if she’d never smoked, she’d have made it to one hundred. 

Maybe she is part of my addiction to the number 2. 

Maybe her proclivity towards having babies and being part of that lovely thing called a nursing couple for as long as it lasted – even as a nursing couple endures their share of horrors as well – I too have loved the state of infancy as a concept and even more so the state of being pregnant.

A time I remember so well from my own pregnancies when I was never alone.

I was never alone when pregnant. Not that it ever happened in any time of the year but I can’t imagine being fearful to be alone when pregnant, the cosiness of the illusion of the two-as-one could exist for that time only and for the rest, no matter how many others are around and even in the deep intimacy of coupledom, I realise we are alone. 

Bodies

The urge to pee hit me as soon as I turned from the lane way that led off Prospect Hill Road and caught my first glimpse of the public swimming pool in Camberwell.

The artificial blue of it, a pretend sapphire. 

My sudden urge was never so bad that I couldn’t hold on as we walked through the gate and paid our entry fee; then dawdled past bodies draped on towels or flat out on the concrete soaking up the heat; then finally beside the toddler‘s swimming area, and past the shower block with its sign urging patrons to wash before entering the pool. 

Not many people showered. The water in the tiled shower block, a box at the top of the hill with open doors that created an archway and two sets of taps on each side wall allowing four people to shower at once. These taps offered only the coldest of water non chlorinated. Worse still because the shower block was in the shade of a row of cypress trees. 

Once beyond the shower block you had a choice: dawdle down the concrete ramp to the base of the dressing room, sandals flapping, or take the steep blue stone steps down to the top section of the rooms.

Cones from the cypress trees studded the gaps between the steps and lined the gutter that flanked the rooms. 

Everywhere, pool, change rooms, seats and signs were painted blue, but inside the rooms were a murky yellow that had turned to a dun brown with green doors that reminded me of a dungeon, especially around the toilet block which was separated from the lockers by an opening. The toilets were built below the swimming pool, which must have leaked. There were traces of green slime that slid down the walls of the toilet areas in a slow-moving trickle and finished in a puddle in the corner. 

In these rooms as I peed safe behind the closed toilet door, I plotted how best to manage the stripping from my day clothes into bathers. If I’d had enough presence of mind before I left home, my bathers were underneath my dress and it was simply a matter of peeling it off then hanging the dress from a hook. If we’d left in a hurry and I needed to put my bathers on from scratch, then I agonised how best to remove my underwear and dress without being seen. 

All the time I tried to behave as I saw the women and girls around me behave. They peeled their dresses or shirts off over their heads and unsnapped bras and slid out of underpants to reveal pink breasts and round bottoms with careless disregard for the watching eyes of other bodies in the room. 

Not me. I wanted to go into one of the five cubicles that stood at the far end of the change rooms opposite the toilets. These rooms were designed for those who needed to shower post swim. Something I never bothered with, though as my body grew into the shape of a young woman with breasts and pubic hair, I took to wanting a shower simply to avoid the gaze of my two sisters who laughed at my excess modesty. As if they never felt like me. 

For the best part of my school year, I hid behind my uniform as a boarder where we were rostered for baths three times a week, at any time of the day. Boarders loved their baths and hung out for the delicious pleasure of soaking under water for the allocated half hour when we could clean the grime and grease from our bodies. It puzzled me that I should bathe in the middle of the day, take off dirty clothes, wash myself and then replace the dirty clothes onto my now clean body. 

At home we showered at night or in the morning, but in boarding school every morning before we dressed for the day we filled our separate urns with water from the taps outside the dormitory, poured water into our basins and used a face cloth to splash water onto our crutch and underarms. Sufficient cleansing until our thrice weekly baths. 

On Saturday mornings we washed our hair, all of us in a long line, stooped low over the basins outside the year seven classrooms. My sister and I could not afford shampoo and so we used Lux soap on our heads, in stealth again in the hope that others might not notice the absence of the proper product for shampooing. 

When it came my turn to bathe, I sang in the bath loud and strong. I sang knowing that the bathroom was across the way from the study when my bath time was rostered for four in the afternoon, when I knew the boarders would be at their books and they might hear me. 

I liked to imagine my voice penetrating their ears, even as I feared a knock at the door telling me to pipe down. I rested my body hidden under the soap suds and thought of how Sister Anastasia had told us our bodies were sacred. Some of us might even want to dedicate them, as she had done, to God. When the nuns bathed, Sister Anastasia told us, they wore a loose cotton shift so as not be tempted by the sight of their own naked bodies. 

Little wonder the idea of becoming a nun appealed to me. The idea of hiding behind my habit, all black in winter or all white in summer. A much surer disguise than my short-skirted school uniform.         

I sang religious songs in the bath, the popular ones of the day, folk music was infiltrating the staid Latin tradition of the church, the world was creeping in.  Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn TurnLord of the Dance and Kumbaya. I was a modern spiritualist and imagined myself as the singing nun, Souer Sourire, a French nun who played to audiences around Europe guitar in hand. In readiness for my vocation, I practised an impression of holiness and to do so I went to Mass every morning early. 

Early morning Mass was compulsory in the boarding school only on Sundays and once during the week. To impress, I made it every day. And sat there alone in the chapel, the only boarder in the student front section of the chapel while behind me the voices of the row upon row of dark nuns, singing like blackbirds at the entrance hymn. As the only boarder present it was my job to ring the bells at the Eucharist time and to announce various turning points in the Mass.

No one taught me this. I learned then as I learned to swim by watching other people. I feared titling the handle of the bells, four of them held together by a brass knob, at the wrong time, and have all eyes upon me for my mistake. 

After one such Mass my favourite nun approached me. Not over my bell ringing.

‘Your suspender belt is pulling at your dress,’ she said. ‘I think you’ve outgrown it. You need to tell your mother.’ I could not get away from her fast enough. Not only had she noticed me my body. She had noticed that my body was overextending itself. I was getting fat and even my school uniform could not hide it. Better the agonies of school life than to endure my fear when I returned home and went to shower in the family bathroom. 

There under the warmth of the rushing water splashing over my body, I was on hyper alert for the moment when my father might barge through the door. 

There are to be no locks on our doors,’ my father said to my mother, when she asked one day if we might consider a lock on the toilet. For privacy. So many people in the one house. 

The toilet was one thing. I had mastered the art of getting on with my business fast. The shower another. To shower needed the removal of all your clothes. Total exposure, the vulnerability of my nakedness. A vulnerability I have not overcome to this day.

Not for me the nudist camp. Not for me, the naked art installation where thousands of people gather together naked for the pleasure of the camera’s eye. Not for me the risk of invasion that comes when you take off your clothing and expose yourself to invasion. 

Far better to hide.