The free floatings

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I’ve been waging war with myself and doing battle with the dreaded anxiety.

The free floatings, I call them, those moments when the lightness of my being seems to hover there, as if my heart might stop beating and at any moment I might drop down dead, or someone else, who matters to me, might likewise disappear.

Whether it harks back to my childhood, or whether it’s connected to more recent events, I can’t say, but I find myself drifting back in time to those nights in my childhood, those rare nights when visitors came and my mother was abuzz with energy and enthusiasm.

My mother loved to party. She loved the excuse to put on her Sunday clothes and dab powder on her nose.

She loved the work involved in that extra trip to Mr Brockhoff’s grocery store to buy tins of smoked oysters, which she later peeled from their can and spread onto a plate, each murky brown morsel resting in its tiny puddle of yellow oil.

She took tooth picks then and speared each oyster through its heart in readiness for the party when she could walk around the room, plate proffered in front and her guests might lean over one after the other to scoop up the speared creature and pop it into their mouths.

I hated the smell of these things, the look of them and the sense they existed for the pleasure of the grown ups, who chatted away in our lounge room and somehow drowned out my father’s voice, as he grew more drunk by the minute.

Somehow he kept a lid on his worst behaviour in the presence of guests.

As often happens in my memory, my siblings are absent.

Never once did I enjoy the solitude of a room of my own in childhood. My room was always occupied by at least one other, usually in the form of one, if not two or three sisters, but in my memories oftentimes they were not there at all.

Likewise this night, I stretched myself out under the blankets, keen to iron out the ache that crept up on me whenever I noticed the laughter from the lounge room and wondered yet again when my mother would come.

Ages ago that same night, I had snuck into the kitchen after I heard the door in the corridor into the lounge room open and shut, followed by the clump of my mother’s heels on the carpet and then their click clack on the kitchen tiles.

I knew she was out there spreading Jatz biscuits with butter and plucking out thin strands of salmon from another thin she had brought home from Mr Brockhoff’s.

I knew she was slicing up tomatoes into thin slivers to put alongside the salmon and in time she would bring back a plate full of these biscuits into the lounge room and once again make her journey around the room, plate proffered.

‘Can I have a cup of tea, too?’ I had asked my mother when she turned to see me at the door, ages ago.

My mother did not scold me for getting up out of bed, not the way my father might. Instead she smiled and looked back to her plate of biscuits.

‘In a minute,’ she said. ‘First, I offer these around to the others and then when I make the next round of tea, I’ll bring one to you. Now back to bed.’

Something of my mother’s promise offered me comfort.

I could lie still now, less fidgety, more ready for sleep, but I did not let myself close my eyes or slip into sleep. I listened instead to the laughter from the lounge room and tried to picture proceedings.

My Auntie Anne in her glamorous, waisted floral frock, big roses on a white background and my Auntie Junie in her dark colours, flanked by a thick cardigan.

My Auntie Junie felt the cold.

She had lived in Indonesia during the Second World War. She had met my uncle in Holland not long after she had returned there, before they married. She had lived in Indonesia when she was young and during the war was interned by the Japanese.

Auntie Junie had suffered, my mother told me. She had even seen a Japanese man kill her brother in front of her eyes. She had seen this and she needed to stay warmer than the rest.

My mother did not like my Auntie Junie for all her suffering.

I could not work out why this was so. Except my Auntie Junie was a woman who valued efficiency, who kept her house immaculate and besides she had married my mother’s younger brother, not the youngest but a brother whom my mother loved and somehow my Auntie Junie did not meet my mother’s standards or else it might have been the other way around and my mother did not meet my Auntie’s standards.

They could not tolerate one another, though you would never know this from the chatter in the lounge room where the woman’s voices rose to a high pitch above the dull drone of the men.

My father’s voice, when he spoke, was the loudest and most guttural.

Whenever my mother entertained her visitors, her family from Holland, her brothers and their wives, she followed the Dutch tradition, a small drink of alcohol followed by coffee and cake.

Tradition she brought from back home and somehow thinking on these traditions my mind wandered back to the cup of tea she had promised me not so long ago.

A cup of tea, milky, with two spoonsful of sugar, a sweetness enough to slip me off into sleep.

But the tea did not come, nor my mother, and as I waited and my eyes grew heavy with a sleep I could no longer evade, I pondered the significance of a mother who could not keep her promises.

When I woke in the morning, the memory of that promise lingered. My mother had forgotten me.

But my mother had made a promise she could not keep because, although she had spoken the words of promise to bring me that cup of tea, she had spoken those words from a distance and she had not taken them into her mind as intention.

She had spoken those words to send me away.

Only in the morning, and on other nights at other times, when I was still a small person and asked my mother to come to visit me in the night, did I realise I had fallen from her mind.

And as soon as I fell from my mother’s mind, I fell into that well I call anxiety today.

A well, not only of abandonment, but one in which all sorts of fears assail me.

I am bad, I tell myself and dredge up all the events of the day in which I have behaved badly or I might have behaved badly.

I said something wrong. I spoke out of turn. I had not studied my times tables. I had not worked on my multiplication and division. I had not practiced the piano. I had kicked my dirty clothes under the bed and left them to pile up with the dust. I had not scraped under my finger nails, which were black with the dirt of every day.

I was bad and my mother’s absence became proof of this. Only her presence could save me.

But when visitors came, they took her away and for the rest I slipped into the free floatings of my life as they persist today.

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5 Comments on The free floatings

  1. Jim Murdoch
    August 21, 2017 at 11:55 am (3 months ago)

    My parents never invited guests to our home. People turned up on congregation business and were given tea and biscuits, maybe a sandwich, but that was it. We were also never invited anywhere socially. Except once. When the Macleans joined our congregation they made a point of inviting families over to get to know them. As they didn’t know us we were also invited. (If only they’d known.) My parents hadn’t a clue what to do. We ate before we went and so when faced with a meal didn’t have room for anything. I refused to play with their kids and insisted on sitting with the adults. We were never invited again and, needless to say, we never returned the favour; I’m sure my dad never even thought to return the favour. I’m trying to remember when my first bone fide party was. I’d be in my twenties probably and did what I always do at parties, buttonhole the only person with interests even remotely similar to mine and cling to them for dear life.

    Like you, when I think of the past (which is mostly only when I read your posts because I never dwell on the past), my siblings are generally absent. I’m the eldest. There are three years between my brother and I and three between him and our sister. Mostly they weren’t a part of my life. There were times we did share a room but as I co-opted the front room in my early teens I only ever slept in my bedroom and it really didn’t matter if there was anyone else sleeping there. I loved solitude. I still do although I don’t go to the same lengths to be alone as I did when I was young. I’ve no great need to escape Carrie. As a teenager I wanted to escape everyone.

    Oysters I have no opinion on. Never tried ’em. Don’t fancy ’em.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      August 21, 2017 at 7:25 pm (3 months ago)

      We are so different, Jim, you and I. Me with my preoccupation with the past and you with your disinterest. Me with my shared bedrooms and quota of parties, you with your preference for solitude. And yet we offer something interesting each to the other, which is the thing I enjoy most about life online, the diversity. Even as my daughters tell me – and to some extent I’m sure they’re right – we tend to share spaces online with like-minded folk, still I find there’s also much diversity as well and I love it. I’m not sure I’d like to share too much time with too many people like me. Thanks, Jim.

      Reply
  2. Karen C
    August 22, 2017 at 8:44 pm (3 months ago)

    My mother’s drinking affected my parents social lives to the point where they socialised with separate groups of friends a lot of the time, but that didn’t stop them from holding some of the best parties. Not a lot, perhaps 1-2 per year maybe. You see, my mother was also a ‘hostess extraordinaire’ and she prepared feasts that were talked about long after.
    (I think she would now be referred to as a ‘functioning alcoholic’.)
    During those brief events, I almost believed that our lives were normal and I was the daughter of this wonderful person everyone was praising and because everyone was drinking, she hardly stood out at all.
    I think my father would agree to the events because it was unthinkable to be thought of as unsociable, and maybe for a few brief hours, his life was wonderful and normal, too.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      August 23, 2017 at 11:43 am (3 months ago)

      That’s just so sad, Karen. I’ve always thought that much as it was hard to have a father who drank too much, it must be ten times harder to have such a mother. Not that there they bear comparison. Still it must have been awful and those few pleasurable moments you describe here, oases in what sounds like an awful time for all your family. Thanks Karen.

      Reply
  3. Louise Allan
    September 5, 2017 at 1:04 pm (3 months ago)

    You’ve reminded me of all the times I’ve told my kids I’d do something and forgotten to do it! Such a simple mistake by your mother, but one leading to a lifetime of anxiety.
    So interesting to read these snippets of your life, Lis. 🙂

    Reply

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