The bottom drawer

My mother hid the tape recorder in the bottom drawer below the bookshelves.

‘This way we’ll be able to prove to him how bad he gets.’

I had been recording my father’s words for weeks. Night after night, I wrote down his crazy words after I had finished my homework at the kitchen table. I wrote his words on pink scraps of paper that I had peeled from my sister’s note pad and collected them together in the back of my Story of Art for safekeeping.

Unlike my mother who planned to play back my father’s words to him on Sunday morning after his binge, I decided to keep my scraps of paper until in adulthood, when I planned to get them into print so that all the world could hear what I had to endure along with my mother and sisters over all those years.

The bookshelves were top heavy with books mostly with Dutch titles, books my parents had brought with them from Holland when they came ten years earlier.

The books were out of date then but they were a way of staying connected to home, or so my mother told me, a way of remembering her culture in this awful country where men and women sat on opposite sides of the room at parties; the shops were all closed by six o’clock at night and on weekends; and there were no outdoor cafes where you could sip your coffee on the footpath and watch the passers by.

The idea of the tape recorder in the bottom drawer bothered me. What if my father heard it click into position. Not that he could over the hubbub of the television which was blaring all day on Saturdays.

Knowing we were spying on my father, gave me a sense of power I had not felt before.

It gave me a sense I was standing shoulder to shoulder with a group of people from the parish or whoever else my mother might tell, like spies hidden behind the wall paper of the lounge room listening to my father rant.

All afternoon, after opening his first botte of brandy, he slept and woke, woke and slept.

After that first long stretch of sleep in his chair I heard my father and saw his silhouette through the frosted glass door that led into the kitchen.

I was seated at my usual place at the kitchen table, my homework in front of me and learning the French declensions, trying to translate Virgil’s Aeneid into half decent English and reading about the wife of Bath in her Canterbury journeys.

All the while, I had an ear cocked to the door, ready for my father’s words.

I planned to keep up with the recorder with my pencil in hand, and my slips of paper at the ready, tucked into the back of my art book.

Not only did the recorder in the bottom drawer act as a shield, my schoolbooks all around me felt like a wall of other people’s ideas I had built to protect me from my father’s voice.

‘Where’s my dinner?’ my father said to my mother who just then walked into the lounge room in search of the newspaper.

‘It’s too early for dinner,’ my mother said. ‘But if you’re hungry I can get you something.’

My mother’s voice was steady but I sensed a tremble behind every word and imagined the recorder in the bottom drawer soaking in the sound.

‘You’re a stupid woman,’ my father said. ‘You never do anything. You and your bloody children.’

The rant ran into sentences and paragraphs enough to fill entire books. My mother said little and her words only inflamed my father’s rage.

We were at the tail end of summer, late February and school was beginning again with all the excitement of a new year.

I wondered what the nuns at school would make of my situation while I wrote as neatly as I could into the pages of my exercise book.

They could not see us. Nor could the tape recorder take in the full measure of my father’s madness as he began to take off his clothes.

He started with shoes and socks. Then peeled off his shirt. His chest looked hollow and thin, the ribs showing when I caught sight of him on his way to the toilet.

He came back naked and walked around the house, pink and menacing.

I imagined him then push up against me with full force so that I might feel the sticky weight of his arms and legs against mine.

What might he do with his penis?

I looked down to my schoolbooks to my wall of protection against this man and wished only that we not only had a record of his words, we also had a camera.

In praise of a sedentary life

In the winter of 2017, my husband and I compared notes about whether this was indeed the coldest winter we had known with temperatures plunging in some places to near zero.

Even rugged up under four layers, it still felt cold.

At times like this your impulse is to stay home or if you can afford, make your way to warm places like Queensland or the top of Australia.

But we were not feeling flush at this time with a down turn in my husband’s work and my usual reluctance to travel too far from home, so we decided on some place nearby.

I do it every time we travel. In my head, I compare the internals of the hotel in which we stay with its typical set up of one small on suite bathroom, hidden jug in cupboard with two cups, two glasses, two spoons and several sachets of tea and dried coffee, to home.

The usual pods of long life milk unnecessarily stuck where the eggs should sit in the fridge are never enough for me who likes her tea milky, but at least this time the Vue Grand in Queenscliff went upmarket with Twining’s tea, instead of the unfamiliar brands from bulk supermarkets like Aldi.

We breakfasted here in the downstairs dining room on the latest shift possible at 9.15 am or so before a day of roaming the area to Portarlington and nearby Swan Bay in the hope of some beach walks; wind in our hair, salt on our cheeks and a sprinkle of sun, however inadequate, to make the whole thing seem more beautiful. Though the sea on a grey day has its own beauties, when the rain and sleet bash onto your face, it’s hard to enjoy them.

These days my husband, if offered the chance, can sleep for twelve hours, which amazes me given I wake after eight. To me this is a generous sleep and more than enough to keep me alert the next day. But he wants more.

We talk about it sometimes, my concern that sleep is his escape into oblivion, that same oblivion his father sought all those years ago when he took to his bed after retirement and spent day after day secretly slugging from a sherry bottle and listening to the horse races.

Maybe his father thought gambling a legitimate way to augment his pension once he stopped the nine to five drudge of a job with the local council, doing whatever people who work in overalls do.

I never thought to ask. It didn’t seem relevant but these days as I watch my husband slide into a life of less activity, I wonder what it was his father did to while away the hours and what it might be that could keep another man going, especially when I figure my husband of the high intellect must have got his brains from someone.

Perhaps it’s true, as I’ve read elsewhere, we get our IQs from our mothers.

This idea would offend my father who was convinced my mother was one of the stupidest and most unintelligent people who ever lived.

Why then did my father marry her?

Did he not reckon on this when he first decided he would convert to Catholicism in order to claim her as his bride?

Was that not a foolhardy act?

Or was he drawn to the respectability of my mother and her family? Their clean living ways? Their religious convictions and the gentle aspect of a family of seven children, two of whom became Franciscan priests, and parents who managed to keep all their children dedicated to the church even into adulthood and for some even after they migrated to Australia and far from home.

My father was the first from his newly adopted family to drop his faith, until years later when he was on the edge of death and had stopped drinking and decided maybe he needed something to help get him through all those doubts we all have about what it is like to be no more.

In winter, the main street of Queenscliff, lined on either side with the usual array of food stops and junk shops disguised as antiques, was all but closed at 4.30 in the afternoon given trade was so slow.

We walked up and down then in search of the best place for our evening meal, the only thought: how to get a half decent feed at a reasonable cost. They tend to charge more in the country and much as they try to emulate the restaurants and cafes in the city, they never quite succeed. You pay more for less.

This place throbs with bodies at the height of summer, but like most places by the beach it all but closes up for the short cold months after Easter through to Cup Day in November when the cash registers start to clang again and the locals grit their teeth against the onslaught.

Much as they might try not to complain – most of them rely on the tourists – the arrival of the locusts, year after year interrupts their quiet lifestyle and cause an irritation many of them cannot bear.

In winter they can forgive us for traipsing the streets. They’re grateful even that a few city folk might venture so far into the cold to enjoy a winter holiday by the beach.

This then is another trip I have made to appease those who consider my life at home too sedentary. They want me to stay on the move before my body seizes up altogether, but I prefer to travel only in my mind.

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