On addiction

‘Time stutters and reverses and it is always yesterday. Maybe the greatest miracle is memory.’ Brian Doyle.

For all the arguments time does not exist, I’m okay with the idea there’s a past, present, and future, which most experience sequentially.

Before I knew about the nature of addiction, even as in childhood my father drank himself into a stupor night after night, I reckoned it would not happen to me.

I had willpower in all matters except when it came to love.

How then to win it from my man who, in my twentieth year, was an unemployed gambler supporting us both on his winnings? 

His gambling was not an addiction, I reasoned, because he enjoyed it too much. And even when he lost, whatever money he put aside on a weekend string of mistakenly chosen losers, he reconciled himself to having another go the next week when he was sure he would win again.

There was a night when I was studying for my psychology exams the next day when the electricity was shut off and I had to study by candlelight, but mostly he kept us away from eviction and the debt collector at the door. 

I have memories as a child. My mother telling us to be quiet when there was a knock at our front door after some bill remained unpaid.

This might be a trick of memory adopted from the movies. Not being able to pay bills is a mark of that memory. One Mrs Milanova referred to as my fear of ‘running out of resources’. 

I liked this notion. The idea that money is not the only resource. There are many such resources, skills, abilities, ways of managing life that can get us through and money is only one of them. 

Get through we did. But this night after I had spent the day tidying the flat my boyfriend rented with his friend, beginning with the kitchen and bathroom – wiping down benches, mopping floors, scrubbing out the toilet, dusting, then moving into the bedrooms where I changed the bedsheets in our room – I looked forward to something better. 

I had left Paul’s house-mate Ivan’s room alone. Ivan preferred it that way. He was working as an engineer or some such and spent large chunks of his evenings driving taxis in a bid to earn as much as he could. He planned to travel overseas indefinitely in the next few months and had given up all life’s pleasures for the promise of future happiness in lands far away. 

I did not warm to Ivan, nor he to me. Perhaps because I threatened to take Paul away from him. Ivan told me once, Paul was not the type of guy who sticks with one woman only, or words to that effect. I should therefore not trust his interest in me, it would not last. But Paul and I lasted all of four years, and in the end it was not Paul who chose to leave.

Once I’d finished the housework, set a load of washing, and begun to stir onions in a pan in readiness, I was ready for the night.

I chose a chicken curry made with Maggi chicken noodle soup, Keen’s curry, a yellow spoon full, and sausages – a poor person’s dish we all found delectable when our taste buds were insufficiently advanced to appreciate the subtleties of fresh foods. 

The thought of this dish today makes my stomach squirm as if I’ve sucked in a whiff of milk gone off or the stink of vomit. But on this night I had made a dish fit for a king. And all of it without asking.

Imagine my surprise when Paul came home at six o’clock from a day at the country races in Pakenham, to tell me he planned to join his friend Roman at another race meet that evening. This time for the dogs at Olympic Park. No need for me to go. I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. 

He was right. The sight of these sleek greyhounds streaking after a mock rabbit lure irked me almost as much as the thought of eating curried sausages today. 

I could only ever think of the poor rabbit at the end, or the way those dogs were taught to fight so fiercely for the actual meat they gave in place of pretend rabbit at the end of the race. Talk about addiction to the promise of something that never quite eventuates.

Paul offered a goodbye peck and was gone. I paced the room. How could I survive this night without him? All day I had prepared the house and dinner to the promise of a splendid evening together, in front of the television or snuggled up in bed, close to the man I loved. And he had thrown me away. How could he? 

I did not drink whiskey as a matter of course, too grainy, insufficiently sweet and the smell reminded me of my father. But I decided, given it was the only full bottle in our cupboard, I would drink the lot. I would then go into a coma and never wake up again.

I gagged at the taste, the rich malt, the kick in the back of the throat. I could not skull as I had seen people do in movies. Only sip. The more I sipped the more my gut roiled. The alcohol was numbing my senses in a way I hoped it might, but my body recoiled at the thought of getting through to the bottom. 

Then I remembered how people mixed booze and pills. So, to speed up the process, I ripped open a pack of Panadol from the bathroom cupboard and gulped down two. This I knew might help with pain. I was not in physical pain, and my emotional hurt was fading from view in a blur, but still I ached.

Paul would come home and find me slumped on the couch. He would panic when he could not wake me. He would dial triple 000 and the ambulance would come and take me to the hospital where he would spend a tortured night worrying I might die. I did not think about doctors needing to pump out my stomach. 

A third of my way through the bottle with another two Panadols sloshed between, I settled onto the couch. Restless, but unable to fade, I decided a move to our bedroom might be more Ophelia-like for when Paul found me. 

It was morning when I woke to Paul’s snoring in the bed beside me. My head groggy, my stomach empty. The drama over. 

I did not say a word to Paul. Instead, I stored my resentment along with the many other slights from our time together. When he took to training with the Commonwealth Police and left his gambling life behind, the balance of our relationship shifted.

One day, a young resident doctor at the hospital where I worked asked me out on a date. His name was Mark, tall and red headed, I liked him for his sense of humour. 

‘No,’ I said I could not accept his offer. I was in a relationship. But within an hour I told him I’d changed my mind. I would go with him. I could go with him. 

Paul was away on a training course in Sydney and did not need to know. I was a woman who could make her own choices, regardless. And with this first departure, I entered a string of infidelities that ended in the death of our relationship.

Before we separated, I found a sheet of paper on which Paul had written a list of pros and cons in our relationship. His first among the positives: I love her. 

A shock. I had not believed this in all our four years together, until then when I saw it in writing. Too late, because my love for Paul had faded to indifference and although I maintained a soft spot for this man who introduced me to the life of a sexual woman, I will never forget the way he took me for granted. 

I thank all the stars we call lucky for steering me away. If I had married Paul, what an impoverished life I might have led. 

My mother told us when we were children, before she met our father, there was a man who once proposed to her. A man whose name I remember as Martin or Hank. But my father slid into her life in his army uniform, and she was entranced. Also, the resistance from her parents – my father was not Catholic, and from a struggling family – appealed to her. Perhaps in much the way Paul’s difference from my family appealed to me. 

Our separation lasted several months into a year during which we kept up contact. Another story here. 

Years later after I had settled with my own husband, I heard Paul had married a woman, named Lucy. One night, out of the blue, she rang me. She did not understand Paul and she offered him back to me.

‘No thanks,’ I said. ‘He’s all yours.’ 

I have not heard from him or her since. 

Opportunities

Before I fell for opportunity shops and hard rubbish, there was Dimmey’s. Before it was acceptable to rifle through other people’s cast offs in search of something useful: clothes, glass ware, shoes or toys, there was Dimmey’s. 

When I was sixteen, in bursts between spells at boarding school, a day scholar again, and free to travel home by train, even as I could not afford a ticket, or too much else besides, there was Dimmey’s. 

The store sat majestically on Swan Street near the train overpass with its turquoise globe elevated above, and row upon row of merchandise, unpredictable offers strewn over tables.

One week you might find night wear for a song, reasonable quality, motley colours, and sizes, but if you were lucky, one might fit. 

Best of all, after an intake of shoes cast off from some shoe manufacturer unable to sell, again, you might be lucky and find your exact size. A pair of shoes that would otherwise cost a fortune for less than five dollars. Unimaginable leather shoes. 

Shopping at Dimmey’s was like trawling through an Aldi store today.  Supermarkets hosted from Germany with foreign food packaged almost identically to the local variety.

In the middle aisle, rows of inexpensive items, bric a brac, kids clothes, sportswear, toys, camping equipment, kitchen utensils, cleaning aids, stationary.

An endless array of useful items if you happen upon them at your precise moment of need. Seductive stuff even without need because they’re cheap. The aisle of shame.

My mother’s impulse, and I have inherited her tendency. To buy things whether I need it or not, because it’s inexpensive.

A bargain, she’d say coming home with five new hair brushes or a dozen tea towels, none of which we needed at that moment, but useful for later, if her overfull cupboards could hold them.

There they stayed stuck in the back of the cupboard where they were forgotten until she died. 

I have not inherited my mother’s impulse to be on the lookout for bargains in gift ships, random bits and bobs she imagined might be a suitable gift for this grandchild or other, even for this adult child or other. 

I despised my mother’s gifts at adult birthdays. They spoke of her stashed collection of unwanted junk bought on the cheap and held in a cupboard to help appease her guilt over what she could give.

My mother liked to give. I too have inherited this impulse. To give.  But I cannot abide giving people junk. I cannot abide giving people stuff they might consider tokenistic.

Soap-on-a rope type presents. Even bunches of flowers make me cringe. Mindless acquisitions. I could not come empty handed, so I bought you a box of Cadbury Roses, or a pack of biscuits. 

For my sixtieth birthday, which I celebrated in style, you wouldn’t believe the number of scarves I received. When I rarely if ever wear scarves.

Scarves might be a delight to other people but to me they’re potential stranglers. 

The scarves were useless I have them still. Some elegant and in silk, boxed away to be removed when I die if I don’t give them to the opportunity shop first.

Then there were the multiple bottles of sparkling burgundy. A more meaningful gift. It’s my favourite tipple and some people recognised this. But they did not realise – a creature of habit – I prefer the same variety, Andrew Garratt. 

Finally there were the books, many books, weird books on things like a history of cooking, or of roses, or some random novel with names I can’t recall though the word ‘mother’ in the tile might have been chosen for this reason and no other.

Presents like the ones my mother chose.

In my fortieth year she gave me a copy of Rape in Australia. I was a social worker by then and she figured it might have been of interest. A scholarly research book whose title sent shudders through me.

Dimmey’s was a store where you could find such books. On a remaindered table, choc a block full of someone else’s efforts to put words to the page.

They left me in awe then. They still do. Rather like the shops that sell books, not by their titles or content, but by volume. As if a person can buy several kilos worth of books to complete their bookshelves as a decorative feature with no intention whatsoever of reading them.

I never read the book on rape in Australia, but I kept it buried within a random bookshelf. I am a book hoarder and cannot bear to pass them on though lately I’ve been trying to offload some into street libraries dotted throughout the suburbs. 

I love the concept of a street library as much as I love opportunity shops. Places like Dimmey’s where opportunities wait if you’re lucky and for the rest, you can be unlucky. 

There’s an excitement to the find. Keep your head to the ground, on the lookout for a glint of silver or gold. A bright flash of colour signifying someone’s lost treasure which might soon become yours.

This was my childhood pleasure. I often found money. My favourite dreams consist of finding a hidden five dollar note tucked under a rock. I go to haul it out and there are more underneath. And still more underneath that. I find so much money in my dreams and it bot thrills and terrifies me. 

What if someone comes looking for it? 

Is it theft? 

Can I have it? 

Does ‘finders keepers’ apply? 

Should I take it to the police? 

Will it burn a hole in my pocket? 

Where did it come from? 

 Does it matter? 

What shall I do with it?

Mrs Milanova once said, money is only as good as what you do with it. Where it came from also matters. How it’s earned.

All these noble sentiments that clash with my childhood desire to have something for myself when so little was forthcoming. Where I was the proud possessor of multiple hand me downs but sometimes longed for something shop-bought even if it only came from Dimmey’s. At least it was new and untarnished. A great find. A cheap treasure and all of it mine, if my mother could part with the money.

The joys of ownership. The joys of a trip after school to Dimmey’s.