Eastbourne Beach Art House. Geelong.

This morning in that half-awake state where sleep has left me, reluctant to abandon the warmth of my bed, I agonise over a ship in a bottle.

How to get the boat inside? 

Piece by piece with tweezers, a steady surgeon’s hand, glued onto a flimsy plinth?

The memory from childhood of four children who threw stones at their bottled ship after casting it adrift at the edge of a stream running below their family home.

One stone collided after several others had fallen afield and sunk. 

The children in darkness on top of a cliff overlooking the sea. Salt spray in their noses and the last of the night gulls calling. The mast of their ship released now from its glass prison, afloat on the ocean. 

Two boys, two girls. The eldest scales the cliff then leads his siblings on board their ship. The journey begins.

In search of adventure. In search of treasure.

The sky is a cross between grey and blue. The Ferris wheel is still. Boats lie at anchor outside my window like slick lazy seals. People jog along the sand beyond the road that runs alongside this art house, a white painted brick dwelling built a century ago and pitched perfect across from the sea.

The usual composition, eight women writers, this time led by the inimitable Cate Kennedy and my mind is word-logged, ideas abundant. All of it needing time to percolate and process. Cate is a master storyteller, a weaver of yarns. She works magic with words. 

My own words flag at my fingertips, but I shall not let my childhood awe stop me from my own lumpy efforts to bring to life a story.

In springtime before the turn of this century, my family of four small daughters, husband, and one French exchange student travelled through Geelong on our way to Anglesea for a holiday by the ocean. 

We passed through the sloping highway that runs alongside the water before a bridge that took us further down the coast. I marvelled at this city, once home to a young man who came into my life as an eighteen-year-old innocent on a holiday job at Hall’s Book store in Elizabeth Street in the city.

I did not tell you the name of the older female daughter in the story of my ship in its bottle is Elizabeth, after the Queen. My own Elisabeth after several saints. My mother’s name. My name. 

How I despise this name. Its vulgarity, as though it has been around too long and needs up dating.

Give me a name that sings. A name with music in its path. Like Persephone, or Felicity, Marigold. But I digress.

We pre-booked a beach house in Anglesea at great cost for this holiday. While two of our number stayed nearby in the house of friends, we others languished in the cold. Caught in the lag of seasons, winter still biting at our heels. Although there were electric blankets on the beds, this was the only warm place in the house. None of the heaters worked. 

In a fit of pique, my husband and I travelled back to Geelong that first morning while our girls stayed in their cosy beds and we bought a couple of moveable oil heaters, upstanding and expensive to run. Who was to care? The owners of the house from whom we rented could fit the cost of the cold. They had misled us into imagining a cosy retreat by the beach.

We were not about to freeze.

Geelong, gateway to the sea. One side of the bay. 

I have been married to the same man for 46 years and during those years what looks like a long and so-called happy marriage was anything but. Give us full marks for perseverance. Me, especially. I took that vow in church or at least the religious centre where we chose to make our promises to one another, to love, honour and cherish, but never to obey. Obedience belongs in the army or boy scouts; it does not belong in marriage. 

At twenty-five years of age, the idea of forever was as alien to me as wrinkles on my skin. I saw them on other people but could not imagine my own. I tested this marriage, pulled at its strings, dragged up the anchor, tried to take off, but stayed, even as the fantasy of a better life with someone else whispered in my ear. 

I came back. 

The rages of his ways when he was under pressure with his career in law, negotiating deals for other people with millions of dollars at stake while we struggled to cover the cost of school fees have softened. 

Even as he is still fearful that during our ancient years, we will wind up in a Rosebud caravan park. This will not happen, at least not to him. Of this I’m certain. 

In moments of despair when he lambasts me with his anguish, ‘You made a bad bargain,’ he says. And I rant back, ‘Which one of us has made the bad bargain’. As if marriage is a bargain, where you buy a product in the store with a lifetime guarantee of success. Even as you know this bargain will wear and wither with age. Its internal mechanisms will rust and squeak for lack of oil, and you will patch it up as best you can until the wheels fall off and you need artificial means by which to lug it around.

This to me is marriage and it becomes as familiar as old and favourite socks. The ones you might darn again and again. Museum pieces. They belong in hard rubbish, but you cannot bear to part with the feel of the wool on your feet. The way they hug your ankles, lightly now their elasticity has stretched. 

I’m loading the dishwasher with the evening plates crusted with leftovers once delicious and now in the process of digestion. My mind whirls over the day’s events, back in time to the past. 

I take a dishcloth and squeeze it under running water almost too hot, but my asbestos fingers from years of abuse can still enjoy the rigour of heat. Squeeze out the cloth and spray eucalyptus disinfectant over the silver body of the cook top. 

It should not be a gas cooktop anymore. It should be one of the glass-topped digital devices two of my daughters enjoy where there are no flames. Where something happens as if by magic after a click of the digital switch ignites molecules that dance into action under the base of specially designed saucepans with special bases to co-create the heat. 

To use such a cook top is bliss but mine must do for now. As must everything else in my house that is now over a century old despite two renovations. Although this house cries out for restoration or abandonment, I am not ready yet.

This house, like my body, in early stages of decay. 

I see my mother as she lay dying. Furious to be leaving at last. Furious to be there alone under the white sheets of a hospital-tall bed.

In her daydreams she had envisaged a movie star death in her home, in her bed, her children surrounding her like guardian angels filled with love and concern. Each taking on the nightly vigil so she was never alone. I did not realise then when my meltier died that death was not like her dream. Not as in movies where a person is able to speak in whispers. Although struggling, they are lucid and directed at you the living, to offer a farewell, of sorts.

Not so for us, to say goodbye to my mother on her death bed. My mother, already in her shroud of sheets, closed her eyes one last time.

Before she closed her eyes, she looked at me one day when I came to visit. She looked at me with eyes that said, ‘Look away. I do not want you to see me like this. I do not want to see you like this.’ 

I have always been thirty-three years younger than my mother. I have always been behind her in knowledge and understanding. 

She often reminded me of this. I was a fledgling social worker. My mother’s words: 

‘I would never want to see someone as young as you.’ What would you know? You, my baby. Why did you not stay my baby? Why did you have to grow up and become the adult you are? An adult with a mind of her own. An adult who defies my religious convictions. 

‘I can see you go your own way,’ my mother writes in letters to me. Letters written from Cheltenham a half hour’s drive from my house. She cannot speak to me directly. I have fallen from grace. I have lost my religion. She cannot see the value of the cook tops now in use in kitchens throughout the western world. 

Environmentally friendly and far less mess. She wants to open a fire, the log burning stuff that reminds her of childhood even as the smoke floats through the chimney to pollute the skies with more than this earth can handle. 

My mind wanders beyond the stove top to the generational change in our lives. And I promise my daughters I will never let myself believe I know more than they. They teach me about a world they have entered, one out of my reach and soon to be out of theirs as other children race ahead and invent new ways of cooking, of living, and of dying.

Humiliation in her bones

‘Evidence is always partial. Facts are not the truth, though they are part of it. Information is not knowledge. And history is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It is no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth, a script is a performance, a map is a journey.’ Hilary Mantel

With Mantel in mind, I go in search of the past. Or some semblance of it in the knowledge we can never re-live it only recreate some hint of what it was like.

When I was a child, somewhere between eight and ten – Iet’s compromise and make it nine years old – I went one day on an errand for my mother. To buy Milk or sugar or flour, some essential from those days. 

I stood at the counter as the milk bar man went out back in search of whatever I had requested. He was out of sight. I was out of sight. At that moment, as I gazed longingly at the rows of chocolate, the White Knight bars, tinsel covered with a hard mint chewy centre coated in dark chocolate; Crunchies, thicker bars of honeycomb, again coated in milk chocolate, Cherry Ripes, another variation on the chocolate bar theme but this time filled with a cherry concoction and coconut. So much to choose from, it occurred to me I could take one. Or two or three. Stuff the into my pockets with no one any he wiser. 

In the past my heart thumped when I dared ask the man behind the counter if he could sell me a bag of mixed lollies and put it onto our account. The milk bar man never asked for money. Every item we bought went onto the account and once a month my father paid it. A list so long I figured he might not notice the occasional illicit purchase of lollies. It never occurred to me my siblings might do likewise, and the list of lollies might be long. I thought only of the moment and in the moment another thought occurred. 

Next day a Saturday, when my mother was away at work cleaning the convent and there were no errands to fetch, I constructed a fake list of necessities. A pack of rice, a stick of butter, anything that would require the milk bar man to leave the counter in search. While he was out back I shoved a couple of chocolate bars into each of my pockets. 

‘Will that be all?’ he asked when he handed me the rice. 

‘No thanks,’ I said, and went on my way.

I ditched the rice on the kitchen table. It would be used for Nasi Goreng and not wasted. Our house was a short walk from the shops, and I took off alone to roam the streets of Canterbury and eat my stolen chocolate.

It was the strangest of pleasures, the delicious sweetness on my tongue, and so much of it. Never had I enjoyed a full chocolate bar to myself. Chocolate bars were shared with siblings. 

Never had I eaten such a quantity of chocolate in one hit. Chocolate was precious. If you were lucky you might get to choose one from a box of Cadbury Roses my mother received on Mother’s Day or for her birthday, but otherwise, you ate mixed lollies. The only chocolate in your white paper bag, scrunched at the top to prevent spillage, was coated into Clinkers with their pastel-coloured interiors, against the sticky chew of chocolate coated Caramel Cobbers. A chocolate bar was something else. 

The sweetness was then offset by a growing sickness in my stomach, an ache of too muchness that along with the knowledge I had done something wrong, something more wrong than I had ever done in my life before, I found it hard to go home. 

I found it hard to sit in front of the television later in the day with my sisters and brothers when the cartoons came on late afternoon and our mother was home from work and our father had gone off to the hotel to buy alcohol for the night. Not only the thought that soon he would be drunk and horrible but also that I too had taken something I should not.

Years later when I was an adult and in psychoanalysis my analyst talked to me of these episodes of stealing. For there were several. She talked of how something stolen can never be used. She also talked of how hard it must have been for me as a child when the milk bar man found out about my stealing. Perhaps he knew from the onset, but it took several visits to the shop, over the course of several weeks in my memory, and always on a Saturday morning, for him to complain to my mother.

‘I could report this to the police, but I thought it better to tell your mother first.’ My mother was apologetic. Later she called me aside. In my memory I knew it was coming. One school day, I knew at the beginning of the day that he had spoken to her. All day at school I was unable to sit still, unable to get my mind off what was to come. 

Would I go to prison? Would I be shamed in front of my family? Would my father belt me on the bottom as he had done when I was younger after my sister, and I had taken lollies from the milk bar they then owned. 

At five years of age or even younger I didn’t consider it stealing then. It was our shop, but I knew I should not take anything without permission and when my brother dobbed me and my sister in, my father took us on his lap in turn, leaned over, and belted us on our backsides. 

The humiliation more than any pain stayed with me. And humiliation is a far greater punishment than any physical assault. Humiliation gets into your bones. Like a bruise, it swells your blood vessels until they burst. Humiliation is the thing that separates us as humans from animals and I knew it that day and had not forgotten.

This the child who stole.

When I finally came home from school and my mother called me away from the television and into the kitchen where she was stirring onions into mashed potatoes for dinner.

‘Mr Davis tells me you’ve been steaking chocolates from his shop. Is this true?’ I nodded. She looked at me face on. 

‘I did not think it was you. Your younger sisters maybe, but not you.’

My memory takes me no further. There was no punishment beyond my mother’s disapproval and my promise never to do it again. My word was good. I never stole lollies again. I never shop lifted again. 

My mother’s disapproval did not require any further interventions from my father and in my memory she never told him, much to my relief. It was bad enough that I had lost her love in that moment. And as my analyst suggested years later, the burden that my mother inflicted on me that day. The idea I was expected to be her good little girl, one incapable of wrongdoing has also stayed with me.

It is bad enough going through life struggling with your ambivalence, your mixed feelings your sense of wrongdoing. But to do so under the weight of a mother who believes, or wants to believe, that like her, you are destined for heaven. To sit among the saints because you are a good girl. When you know you’re not. This then was the greatest punishment of all.