The bottom drawer

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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The books were out of date then but they were a way of staying connected to home, or so my mother told me, a way of remembering her culture in this awful country where men and women sat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.

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6 Comments on The bottom drawer

  1. Jim Murdoch
    October 9, 2017 at 3:52 pm (2 months ago)

    After sitting on them for years I finally got round to converting the audio tapes I have of our family from the sixties into digital format. They make interesting listening because for some reason my dad simply left the tape running and so what got recorded for the most part was every day behaviour. Mum’s mostly in the kitchen and the exchanges between her and my dad are in raised voices but not angry voices. In part they’re trying to be heard over us kids. But a few times Mum comes into the room and we get to hear them making plans for the day ahead. It’s pretty boring stuff to be honest but it really does capture us as a family. The children are more aware of the tape recorder and try to out-perform each other but not so my parents. It’s a shame so little was ever recorded. Unlike my dad to spend good money on a reel to reel and then hardly ever use it. In the seventies I used the machine to record LPs I borrowed from the lending library and music from off the radio—the quality is dire—but there’s virtually nothing of us speaking, just a couple of minutes of me practicing French and very badly.

    Like you—like most people I expect—I would’ve loved to record the bad times to remind me how bad they were or, conversely, that they weren’t as bad as I remembered. I don’t trust my memories. Tapes might’ve been helpful too when Dad’s drinking got excessive. He wasn’t a nasty drunk or violent but he was always under the influence and I don’t know about you but I never feel completely safe around people who’ve been drinking. How it never affected his work and how no one in the congregation picked up on it I have no idea. I guess people see what they expect to see and some of his occasional dotteriness [unsteadiness on many levels] would’ve been put down to his age although he was only in his early sixties at this point. I’m not yet sixty and yet one of our neighbours asked if I needed help bringing in our wheelie bin. Christ knows what age she thinks I am.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 9, 2017 at 7:58 pm (2 months ago)

      I nearly lost this post from you, Jim, under the welter of spam that keeps coming into my WordPress site. It’s painful separating the rubbish from the genuine but I’m glad I found you among the 550 plus spam posts and saved your words from the trash. Anyhow, it’s good to hear your take on those tape recorded days from childhood. Such a treasure those tapes. I have some too, my voice as a small child with my BBC English intonations, so much more pompous than my speech today. We Australians, if that’s what I can call myself, become less angsty about our accents every day. I’m glad we have these records. The past, as you know, is otherwise, such a foreign country. Thanks, Jim

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth Aquino
    October 12, 2017 at 4:47 pm (2 months ago)

    I had to consciously breathe throughout this post. You are such a master at building tension in a way unlike anyone I’ve ever read. It’s as if it were seeping into every word —

    And then, this:

    “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.”

    Just overwhelmingly powerful.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 12, 2017 at 4:59 pm (2 months ago)

      Thanks Elizabeth. I’m glad the story works for you. You give me heart.

      Reply
  3. Karen C
    October 15, 2017 at 6:17 pm (2 months ago)

    Do you still have the written words on paper? I imagine reading them would be painful. Rather like the pain in this piece and the need to protect yourself.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      October 16, 2017 at 10:17 am (2 months ago)

      I still have those sheets of paper and those words, Karen. They no longer distress me, without the voce behind them and the context they just seem like so many crazy rambles. Thanks, Karen.

      Reply

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